Senator trying to focus federal welfare reform on marriage

WASHINGTON -- When Congress remade national welfare policy, out-of-wedlock births were a major concern to a young Missouri House member involved in the 1996 overhaul. The lawmaker, Republican Jim Talent, went on to become a U.S. senator and is now helping to shape the next welfare reform bill.

Today, Talent regards out-of-wedlock births as a symptom, and he's targeting what he sees as the cause: not enough healthy marriages.

"What we tried to do was fight the darkness, fight out-of-wedlock birth rates, and we accomplished some of those things, but what I want to do now is light a candle," Talent said in an interview.

"We did not put enough in to encourage healthy marriages, and the word 'healthy' is very important. We need to encourage the kind of relationship skills that lead to healthy marriages and families that are centered around healthy marriages," Talent said.

Talent argues that strong family commitments will help lift people out of poverty and off the welfare rolls.

"We're talking about folks who are not, by and large, getting divorced, but folks living in neighborhoods where marriage is not an option for people who often haven't seriously considered it," he said.

"Now, one of the things we could do when people apply for welfare is sit down and talk to them about the benefits of marriage for their children -- in many cases, the mom and dad will be together -- and say, 'We can help you learn the kind of skills that will enable you to keep this commitment,'" he said.

$200 million a year

The 1996 welfare rules expired last fall, and Congress is working on legislation to renew the program.

The House passed its version of the bill in February, voting on party lines to boost work requirements and direct federal money toward promoting marriage and abstinence from sex until marriage.

Talent is sponsoring a welfare measure sought by the White House and Senate GOP leaders. President Bush is seeking $200 million a year to promote marriage.

The Senate Finance Committee recently voted to send legislation to the full Senate for debate, and Talent thinks Congress has a decent shot at getting it done this fall.

"The impression I've had from the beginning is that the difference between what we're going to pass and what we have now is very small, compared to the difference between what we had before 1996 and what we had after."

One point of contention is the idea of increasing requirements for work, as both the House and Senate bills do. Debate centers on limits on how long people can do vocational training, college, adult education and other education and training and still be credited as working.

Also under debate is the amount of money for child care. A bipartisan group of senators is seeking to increase money for child care, although Talent and other White House allies argue that states already have billions of dollars available for child care if they choose to make those programs a priority.

Not everyone wants the focus on marriages to become a federal welfare program.

"This is a massive, expensive new bureaucracy, and we really don't have any idea whether or how it would work," said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute think tank in Washington.

"It's not generally that most poor people don't want to get married, it's who are they going to marry?" he said, arguing that large percentages of the men in question have criminal records, are unemployed or have income below $7,000 a year.

"It's not like some doctor or lawyer is waiting down at the corner to marry some 16-year-old pregnant woman," Tanner said. "This is not a case where simply marrying the father of their child is going to lift them out of poverty."

No model programs

Talent acknowledges there does not yet seem to be a marriage program being done at the local or state level that the federal government can use as a model, but he hopes state lawmakers will pursue innovations as aggressively as they did in the 1990s.

Both Talent and Tanner say the 1996 reforms have been successful, although Tanner considers the success to be somewhat more moderate. The Health and Human Services Department reports that welfare rolls have dropped 60 percent since Congress overhauled the welfare system in 1996.

However, groups such as the Children's Defense Fund have argued that the bad economy in recent years has made it more likely that poor families will have no work and no welfare.

Talent said a positive indicator is that child poverty rates are at historic lows.

"I don't think there's any real argument today that the 1996 bill was a success," he said.