Government's New Role Could Be Marriage Broker

Can the government promote marriage? Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KA) has proposed funding for a program that encourages healthy marriages for low-income residents of Washington, D.C.

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Conservatives have emphasized the importance of promoting healthy marriages in combating poverty. A bill in the US Senate would provide low-income couples in the nation's capital with financial incentives to encourage them to get and stay married. Kansas Republican Sam Brownback wants to provide a bonus of up to $9,000 for marriage counseling, buying a home or sending a child to college. NPR's Rachel Jones reports.

RACHEL JONES reporting:

Sam Brownback says the idea for this experiment came shortly after he began chairing the Senate subcommittee that funds the District of Columbia. He met with a wide range of district leaders and says there was almost unanimous agreement about the city's major challenge.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): Around 57 percent of the children born in Washington, DC, will be born to a single parent without the benefit of a couple bound together for life.

JONES: That's 40 percent higher than the national average. Brownback says focusing on one specific angle helped round out the idea.

Sen. BROWNBACK: We were looking at the schools and all the problems with the schools, and yet all the schoolteachers will all tell you if you can get that child raised well and in a solid family setting their problems diminish.

JONES: So the subcommittee developed a plan to create special investment accounts for low-income District residents. Brownback calls them marriage development accounts. The federal government would contribute $3 for every $1 invested by unmarried or married couples. The money could be used for counseling to steer unmarried couples toward a wedding. It could also go for buying a house or starting a child's college fund, but you wouldn't have to be part of a couple to get one of these new accounts. Single people age 16 to 22 with no children could open one to use for credit counseling or long-term education and job training.

Brownback's plan echoes what some researchers say is a significant trend. It emerged from a new understanding of how some well-intended federal policies were actually turning low-income people away from marriage. For example, welfare policy prior to the 1996 reform reduced benefits for single mothers who lived with a boyfriend.

Mr. MATT STAGNER(ph) (Urban Institute): There's been a sort of 30-year effort to undo some of those disincentives to marriage.

JONES: Matt Stagner directs labor and population studies at the Urban Institute. He says public policy has often dabbled with influencing marriage and relationships with things like tax code incentives, but Stagner says Brownback's proposal goes a step further. It tries to remove barriers to commitment for low-income couples.

Mr. STAGNER: One is the asset-building evolution of ways to help families invest in themselves and seeing poverty as an issue of what families own as opposed to income, what they make during a year.

JONES: Stagner says that's important because research shows many low-income mothers don't even envision marriage until they can get a degree or buy their own home. Policies that persuade them to team with the fathers of their children to build for the future might be a good thing. On the other hand...

Ms. THEODORA OOMS (Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Law and Social Policy): There are times when we really don't want to encourage people to make such an important decision just for the money or the economic pie that they can see in the future.

JONES: Theodora Ooms is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy. While she thinks Brownback's proposal has merit, Ooms says it's just enough of an economic carrot to get the foot in the door, not through it.

Ms. OOMS: The bill doesn't address the important issue of the jobs. It helps with the asset-building such as the house, but after all, to pay a mortgage on a house, you have to first have a steady income.

JONES: But Brownback thinks it's at least a start and that Washington, DC, is the best place to begin the experiment. The district's representative in Congress, Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, agree. She worked with Brownback to make sure that the plan would be voluntary, not imposed. Brownback says he hopes the information gleaned from this experiment might eventually used nationwide.

Rachel Jones, NPR News, Washington.

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