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Subcommittee Examines Welfare Reform Law and Pro-Marriage Provisions

With the 1996 welfare reform law (P.L. 104-193) set to expire next year, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources has held several hearings to examine the impact of the law in order to prepare for its reauthorization. A May 22 hearing discussed provisions of the law that were designed to discourage illegitimacy and promote marriage.

The law established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant “to provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives; to end dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; to prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.”

P.L. 104-193 also created a $20 million bonus grant for each of the five states that demonstrate the greatest decrease in out-of-wedlock births and reduce their abortion rate below the 1995 level. To begin in 1999, the bonus was scheduled to be granted in each of the four years, 1999-2002. Alabama, California, the District of Columbia, Massachusetts, and Michigan received the bonus in 1999, and Alabama, the District of Columbia, Illinois, and Michigan received the bonus in 2000.

Additionally, states may use cash assistance from welfare funds to implement programs to promote marriage and family formation. To date, only two states—Arizona and Oklahoma—have implemented such programs. Welfare reform requires single mothers who are minors to live at home, or in an adult-supervised setting, and stay in school in order to receive TANF benefits.

The 1996 law also established an abstinence-only education program, which is funded at $50 million annually for five years. Programs eligible to receive abstinence education funds must meet eight criteria, including a requirement that they have as their exclusive purpose teaching the social, psychological, and health benefits in abstaining from sexual activity. States contribute $3 for every $4 provided by the federal government, bringing total funding to $87.5 million.

Noting that welfare reform was an attempt to “help young couples and new parents form more permanent relationships including, when appropriate, marriage,” Subcommittee Chair Wally Herger (R-CA) stated, “The logic was clear. If states discourage out-of-wedlock childbearing and encourage marriage, welfare dependence will shrink and children will be better off.”

Ranking Democrat Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) agreed that “there is a general consensus that marriage can benefit children.” However, he added, “We must recognize these generalizations do not apply to every circumstance, particularly when domestic violence is present.” Rep. Cardin also noted, “The connection between marriage and poverty is a two-way street: increasing marriage may help alleviate poverty, but reducing economic hardship also promotes marriage.”

The subcommittee heard testimony from a wide range of experts with varying opinions of the provisions included in the 1996 law.

Arizona State Representative Mark Anderson told the subcommittee about an Arizona law that allocates $1 million of the state’s TANF funding for marriage skills courses. An additional $75,000 is provided for a “healthy marriage” handbook that is distributed to individuals applying for marriage licenses, and another $75,000 is provided for vouchers for low-income couples who want to take marriage skills courses.

Rep. Anderson noted that “abstinence-until-marriage and marriage skills programs are based on sound health policy.” He stated, “Preparing for a healthy marriage also requires developing or having a set of skills that includes communication and empathy for one’s spouse. If a person can achieve and maintain a healthy marriage, studies show they reduce their risk substantially of experiencing a number of negative outcomes.”

Jerry Reiger of the Oklahoma Department of Health and Human Services detailed the state’s efforts to support and promote marriage with its TANF funds. Oklahoma has set aside $10 million of its TANF surplus funds for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, a multifaceted program to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce rates. “Our efforts are targeted at strengthening marriage and not at bashing divorce. Divorce will happen, and sometimes must happen. Therefore we want to clearly communicate the societal economic impact of divorce, as well as the value of the institution of marriage,” he stated.

Since the programs in Arizona and Oklahoma have just begun, there is no data available on their effectiveness. However, Rep. Anderson and Mr. Reiger agreed that Congress should renew and strengthen its commitment to promoting marriage. “Congress has a chance to lead on the issue of strengthening marriage….Let’s give these programs a chance to make a difference in our children’s lives,” stated Rep. Anderson.

Dr. David Popenoe of the National Marriage Project told the subcommittee that the decline in marriage significantly affects children. “The social science evidence is now overwhelming that children fare better in life if they grow up in a married, two-parent family,” he stated, adding: “Children who grow up in other family forms are two to three times at greater risk of having serious behavioral and emotional problems when they become adolescents and adults.” Such research, he stated, should implore Congress to recognize that “the benefits to children of having married parents are so great that the institution of marriage should be encouraged by every reasonable means possible.”

Theodora Ooms of the Center for Law and Social Policy commented on the efforts of states, saying that “many states are using TANF funds to prevent out-of-wedlock births and are focusing primarily on teen pregnancy prevention,” and that the “majority of states have taken at least some policy measures to strengthen two parent families and promote marriage.” However, according to her testimony, states are moving cautiously since “little is known about what approaches are effective, and many are unsure about the appropriate role of government.”

Adding that the “field of marriage policy is in its infancy,” Ms. Ooms stated, “More research, better statistics, and well-evaluated demonstration programs are needed to help guide marriage policy and build education and support.” As Congress moves forward with the reauthorization process, she urged the subcommittee to consider “the appropriate role for government in strengthening two parent families and marriage” as well as what works and whether TANF is an “appropriate vehicle to pursue these goals.”

Dr. Kathryn Edin of Northwestern University detailed the results of a 13-year study of over 300 low-income single mothers living in Chicago, IL, Charleston, SC, and Philadelphia, PA. Roughly 50 percent of those interviewed were receiving cash assistance, and 50 percent were working in low-wage jobs. According to interviews with the women, the majority of them “aspire to marriage.” However, they felt that “marriage may offer more risks than rewards.” Specifically, there were four motives for avoiding marriage: affordability, respectability, trust, and control.

“Mothers do believe they can diminish these risks if they find the right man, and they define rightness in both economic and non-economic terms. In sum, they say they are willing and even eager to wed if the marriage represents substantial upward mobility and if their husband doesn’t beat them, abuse their children, insist on making all the decisions, or ‘fool around’ with other women. If they cannot find such a man, most would rather remain single and raise their children alone,” stated Dr. Edin.

Presenting the subcommittee with proposed changes in the law, Laurie Rubiner of the National Partnership for Women and Families said that the reauthorization should be “grounded in several, central guiding principles: all eligible families in need who follow program rules must be treated fairly and have equal access to assistance; welfare policies must help all types of families move out of poverty and welfare policies must be designed to provide a wide variety of supports that can promote strong, healthy families.”

Ms. Rubiner added, “Coercive policies designed to promote certain types of family structures at the expense of others, particularly children, will do more to undermine families than strengthen them.” Referring to cases of domestic violence and child abuse, Ms. Rubiner said, “Clients should not be forced or coerced into remaining in unhealthy, abusive relationships because they are unable to receive TANF assistance.”

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