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A Plan To Promote Marriage

Looking for a new opportunity to promote marriage, the Bush administration is considering a program that would channel money through the child support collection program into experimental marriage and fatherhood programs.

The plan would not need approval from Congress, which already has been asked by President Bush to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to promoting marriage in the welfare program.

The proposed child support program would involve a maximum of about $22 million in federal and state money for about 15 communities, according to two draft documents that describe the plan.

Community coalitions would develop "a saturation approach" including programs at the community, state and regional levels, focused on people with lower incomes, according to the draft plan.

Activities would include educating young people about the benefits of marriage, providing skill building to promote healthy marriages, and creating media campaigns to "rebuild cultural norms" relating to marriage, family formation and fatherhood and the benefits of delaying childbearing until marriage.

Advocates for the poor charge that the plan could siphon off money needed to administer child support programs, is inconsistent with the goals of the child support program and is an effort by the administration to bypass Congress.

Encouraging two-parent families is a "laudable goal," said Vicki Turetsky, a child support expert at the Center for Law and Social Policy. "But that's not the goal of the child support program."

As conceived, participating states would be given special permission by the government to spend money through their child support programs for these experiments. The federal government would match those dollars as they normally match child support spending for administrative expenses.

The proposal is still in draft form and must be approved by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House, cautioned Wade Horn, who heads the HHS Administration for Children and Families, which would run the program.

Horn, a longtime advocate for marriage and fatherhood programs, noted that promoting marriage and discouraging out-of-wedlock childbearing were overt goals of the 1996 welfare law. And he said HHS has long had the power to approve demonstration programs like this one.

"This is not an attempt to circumvent any kind of debate about anything," he said. "The debate about whether government should be involved with this issue at all was resolved five years ago when Congress passed a (welfare) law and a Democratic president signed it."

While the welfare law gave states power to spend their money to promote marriage, few have done so. That's partly because of questions about whether the government should be so involved in people's personal lives and partly because there is little evidence about what might work.

The Bush administration is pushing the issue on a variety of fronts, including asking Congress to devote up to $300 million in federal and state money to pro-marriage experiments when it renews the welfare law this year.

The draft proposal is considerably more modest. It would allow select states to put up one-third of the money for these marriage initiatives through their child support administrative spending accounts. The federal government would pay the remaining 66 percent, the same match rate it uses for the child support program.

Critics fear that facing tight budgets, states may wind up siphoning money they would have spent on child support for this.

"The primary focus should be getting those kids the support they need, not some half-baked experiment that no one knows whether it will help poor kids or not," said Laurie Rubiner of the National Partnership for Women and Families.