By Jean Hardisty, WCW Senior Scholar
From the Fall/Winter 2005 Research & Action Report


Story after story of former welfare recipients who now hold jobs have created the dominant media metaphor—women formerly leading hopeless, dead-end lives are required by welfare reform to become employed and now are thrilled with their independence and new sense of self-worth. But the public is little aware of the upcoming reauthorization of the 1996 “Welfare Reform Act”—formally the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). This Act replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children assistance to poor and low-income women with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

Public attention has moved away from a debate about our welfare system, especially since the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the launch of the war on terrorism. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration has quietly begun to fund “charitable choice,” the funneling of federal monies to faith-based groups at the state and national levels. In the reauthorization of PRWORA, to be passed by Congress in 2005, $1.5 billion in
federal funds will go to the states over five years to be used to encourage welfare recipients to marry and to provide them with marriage counseling. Much, if not most, of the funds will be directed to faith-based groups.

The $300 million annual appropriation, and at least an equal amount already funneled through the federal bureaucracy to faith-based groups, is justified as a new policy to address poverty by promoting marriage and strengthening fatherhood among the poor. The policy’s roots lie in the “Moynihan Report” of the 1960s, which asserted that the African-American community was plagued by “fatherlessness,” resulting in a culture of pathology. The report caused a firestorm of criticism, but became a touchstone for the family values arguments of the New Right.

The argument for marriage in low-income populations, as it has evolved in the intervening years, is that when low-income women with children marry, the family becomes stable and benefits from two incomes, sons have a father figure at home to initiate them in the ways of manhood, and welfare is no longer needed. The same rationale applies to divorce. Rightists claim that divorce does irrevocable harm to children, increases their likelihood of being troubled as teens and adults, and leaves now-single women and mothers in poverty.

But research to support these assertions is inconclusive at best. We know only a few things for certain—that low-income women tend to marry low-income men, and many low-income women have been married and are wary of it, having learned that often the woman loses a certain amount of control over her children to her husband, but at the same time must now assume responsibility for his wellbeing as well as that of the children. Many low-income women who have been married also have experienced violence against themselves and their children. The one “cure” for poverty that is unequivocally supported by research is education; yet it is possible that access to education will be more difficult for welfare recipients after the reauthorization of PRWORA.

To date, the Bush Administration (not Congress) has allocated marriage promotion funds to be spent by the states on welfare recipients, so only welfare recipients are being encouraged (in some cases required) to attend marriage and divorce counseling, paid for with these funds. If such counseling were neutral— that is, its goal was to help the family (whatever its makeup) determine the best course for its future—I as a feminist would applaud this expenditure of public money to help low-income women. But when the counseling has a pre-determined goal to promote marriage and discourage divorce, I begin to worry. Those who specialize in this sort of counseling, organizations such as Marriage Life Ministry of Austin, TX, or The Marriage Makers of Orlando, FL, are conservative Christian organizations that believe marriage is ordained by God and therefore sacred. Given the close relationship
between the Republican Party that now controls the federal bureaucracy and conservative and fundamentalist Christian groups, it seems clear that these groups will receive the lion’s share of federal money to provide counseling services to welfare recipients.

I experienced this conservative, traditionalist belief when I began to work on the issue of battered women in the 1970s. Priests, ministers, rabbis, and even many social workers usually counseled battered women that their marriage must be saved, and the woman’s job was to be a better wife. They advised that she must work with her batterer to maintain peace in the home and to protect her children. Courts turned a cold shoulder to women who wanted to end the marriage because they “asserted” that they were physically or emotionally abused. Thank goodness, I so often think, those days are behind us.

They ended, we hoped, with the passage of The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 1994. It seemed then that activists, who had worked so hard to bring domestic violence out of the closet of shame and dismissal, had experienced notable success. VAWA allocates federal dollars for domestic violence shelters, campaigns to educate the public about domestic violence, a national hotline, legal services, and training programs for police and prosecutors on domestic violence issues. Violence against women activists thought that the principles and policies represented by VAWA could not be touched; surely to oppose programs that help to keep women safe would be a political third rail.

But, sad to say, VAWA has been under steady attack from men’s rights activists, fatherhood activists, and anti-feminist women’s organizations, such as the Women’s Freedom Network. Steady opposition and blocking tactics by a small minority of Republican legislators may cause VAWA to go into the netherworld of unextended legislation that is subject to cuts through the budgetary process.

The attacks on VAWA, as well as the “marriage promotion” funding contained within the proposed reauthorization of PRWORA represent a double threat to poor women, yet they are seldom discussed in the media. This oversight is in keeping with the general neglect of issues of poverty in our ultra-conservative era. We know that low-income relationships are not always characterized by violence against women. Poverty breeds remarkable survival skills, as we see every day in the ability of poor women to nurture and provide for their families. But many low-income relationships are at risk of violence, both in the streets and in the home. Poverty can lead to stress, alcoholism, and drug abuse. The quick fix of marriage does almost nothing to address these problems.

Poverty must be addressed with genuine solutions, such as education, jobs, housing, and childcare—far more expensive solutions than counseling women to get married. But first, society has an obligation to keep women safe. This is often presented as a truism by liberals and conservatives alike when said about women in Muslim societies, in third world countries, or when referring to traffic in women. Yet, here in
the United States, we are losing sight of the horror of women remaining in unsafe relationships. The expenditure of large amounts of federal money to convince women to marry or to stay married should inspire an outcry by all women—not just those at risk.

Jean Hardisty's website contains more information about her work and thinking.