Marriage Promotion, Reproductive Injustice, and the War Against Poor Women of Color

BY SARAH OLSON

This article is from the January/February 2005 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2005/0105olson.html


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This article is from the January/February 2005 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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On December 22, at the stroke of midnight, Renita Pitts became a single woman. Renita is 44 years old, a mother of five with 14 grandchildren. She has been on and off of welfare for most of her life. After she had her fifth child, her husband brought crack cocaine into their house, telling her that it would help her lose weight. She became addicted and struggled for 13 years with that addiction. Throughout her marriage, Renita says, she was afraid to leave her house. "I couldn't trust my husband with our children long enough to go to school. If I left for even an hour, he would have a full-fledged party going on when I came back," she says. In addition to being a drug addict, Renita's husband was verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive. She says they fought frequently, and she had to call the police again and again.

Renita and her husband separated shortly after she stopped using drugs and returned to college. She had also begun attending church. According to Renita, her husband "was insecure because of my security." He gave her an ultimatum, saying she must leave school and stop going to church. When she refused, he left.

Despite the abuse and the drugs, Renita says, she felt many social pressures to stay married. Regardless, she says, "it was important not to have him in my life, constantly pumping me full of drugs." She says the relationship had become so abusive that if she had stayed in it any longer, "someone would have ended up dead."

With the help of California's welfare program, Renita is currently enrolled in the African American Studies and Social Welfare departments at the University of California at Berkeley and works on social justice issues at the Women of Color Resource Center. She was happy to see her divorce finalized in December.

The life stories of Renita and many other women like her are not on the radar screen in Washington, however. Legislation that would promote marriage among low-income people is currently wending its way through Congress. The so-called "Healthy Marriage Initiative" includes a range of provisions designed to encourage women on welfare to get and stay married: providing extra cash bonuses to recipients who get married, deducting money from welfare checks when mothers are living with men who are not the fathers of their children, increasing monthly welfare checks for married couples, offering marriage and relationship education classes, and putting up billboards in low-income communities promoting the value of marriage. Several provisions specifically target Latino and African-American communities. So-called marriage promotion policies, such as those in the Healthy Marriage Initiative, have been touted by the Bush administration and enjoy wide bipartisan support in Washington. Many advocates, however, are concerned that, if the bill passes, it would become more difficult for Renita and domestic violence survivors like her to get a divorce and to survive without a husband.

Married Good, Single Bad

The administration's point man for marriage promotion is Dr. Wade Horn, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services, whose Administration for Children and Families would run the initiative. In July 2002 Horn wrote, "On average, children raised by their own parents in healthy and stable married families enjoy better physical and mental health and are less likely to be poor. They're more successful in school, have lower dropout rates, and fewer teenage pregnancies. Adults, too, benefit from healthy and stable marriages." Critics say Horn sees the wedded state as a cure-all for society's ills, while ignoring the difficulties of promoting something as intensely personal as marriage. Horn and others in the ACF refused repeated requests for comment.

Marriage promotion legislation has its roots in the 1996 welfare reform act. This legislation ended welfare as an entitlement--it allowed states to deny assistance to fully qualified applicants, and resulted in the abrogation of some applicants' constitutional rights. It also created a five-year lifetime limit for welfare recipients, denied aid to many immigrant communities, created cumbersome financial reporting requirements for welfare recipients, and set up work rules that, according to many recipients, emphasize work hours over meaningful employment opportunities and skill development. The legislation explicitly claimed promoting marriage as one of its aims.

When welfare reform was passed, Congress required that it be revisited in five years. The Healthy Marriage Initiative that Congress is considering today was introduced in 2002 as part of the welfare reform reauthorization package. Welfare--now known as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF)--was set to be reauthorized that year, but that reauthorization is now two years overdue.

In September, Senators Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) introduced a bill to reauthorize welfare for six months without overall changes, but with $800 million for marriage promotion and fatherhood programs over a two-year period. Sen. Santorum has been a strong proponent of marriage promotion. In an October 2003 speech to the Heritage Foundation, he promised to aggressively press for legislation that supported marriage between one man and one woman. "The government must promote marriage as a fundamental societal benefit. … Both for its intrinsic good and for its benefits for society, we need marriage. And just as important, we need public leaders to communicate to the American public why it is necessary." The reauthorization bill has died in the Senate, but because of its strong bipartisan support, it is likely to be re-introduced. Sen. Santorum refused repeated requests for comment for this story.

Diverting Dollars

Although the debate about marriage promotion has focused on the Healthy Marriage Initiative, this is just one piece of the Bush administration's pro-marriage agenda. The Department of Health and Human Services has already diverted over $100 million within existing programs into marriage promotion. These are programs that have no specific legislative authority to promote marriage. Some examples: $6.1 million has been diverted from the Child Support Enforcement Program, $9 million from the Refugee Resettlement Program, $14 million from the Child Welfare Program, and $40 million from the Social and Economic Development Strategies Program focusing on Native Americans, among others. Plus, another nearly $80 million has been awarded to research groups studying marriage.

One beneficiary is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Healthy Marriages Grand Rapids received $990,000 from the federal government in 2003 to "facilitate the understanding that healthy marriages between parents is [sic] critical to the financial well-being of children, increase effective co-parenting skills of married and non-married parents to improve relationships between low-income adults who parent children, increase active, healthy participation of non-custodial fathers in the lives of their children, increase the number of prepared marriages among low-income adults, and decrease the divorce rate among low-income adults." The program coordinates local public media campaigns plugging marriage as well as relationship counseling classes, many offered by faith-based providers.

It is precisely this emphasis on marriage as a cure for economic woes that worries many welfare recipients and advocates. According to Liz Accles at the Welfare Made a Difference National Campaign, "Marriage promotion is problematic for many reasons. It is discriminatory. It values certain families over others. It intrudes on privacy rights. The coercive nature of this is lost on a lot of people because they don't realize how deeply in poverty people are living." Accles says that adequate educational opportunities, subsidized child care, and real job skills and opportunities are the answer to the financial concerns of women on welfare. She joins many domestic violence counselors in saying that marriage education funded by government coffers and administered via faith-based providers and welfare case workers is at best a waste of taxpayer money, and at worst pushes women deeper into abusive relationships that may end in injury or death.

In Allentown, Pa., a program called the Family Formation and Development Project offers a 12-week marriage education course for low-income, unmarried couples with children. Employment services are offered as part of the program, but only to fathers. In its application for federal funding, the program set a goal of 90% of the participating fathers finding employment. No such goal was set for the mothers. According to Jennifer Brown, legal director at the women's legal rights organization Legal Momentum, which filed a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services, "What we fear is that this kind of sex stereotyped programming--jobs for fathers, not for mothers--will be part of marriage promotion programs funded by the government."

Experts at Legal Momentum are concerned that the administration is diverting scarce funds from proven and effective anti-poverty programs and funneling the money into untested marriage-promotion programs. They say there is little information about what is happening on the ground, making it difficult to determine what activities have been implemented.

Feminist economists point out that the mid-1990s welfare reform law served larger economic interests by moving women out of the home and into the work force at a time when the economy was booming and there was a need for low-paid service workers. Now that the economy is in a recession, the government has adopted a more aggressive policy of marriage promotion, to pull women out of the work force and back into the home. According to Avis Jones-DeWeever, Poverty and Welfare Study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research, "We are talking about putting $1.5 billion into telling women to find their knight in shining armor and then everything will be okay."

Jones-DeWeever says the view that marriage creates more economically stable individuals is not grounded in reality. She notes that individuals are likely to marry within their own socioeconomic group, so low-income women are likely to marry low-income men. According to author Barbara Ehrenreich's estimates, low-income women would need to have roughly 2.3 husbands apiece in order to lift them out of poverty. Jones-DeWeever points out that in African-American communities, there are simply not enough men to marry: there are approximately two and a half women for every African-American man who is employed and not in jail. In addition, many social policy analysts are quick to point out that in general, poor people are not poor because they're unmarried. Rather, they may be unmarried because they're poor: the socioeconomic conditions in low-income communities contribute to a climate in which healthy marriages are difficult to sustain.

Another criticism of marriage promotion comes from survivors of domestic violence and their advocates. Studies consistently show that between 50% and 60%--in some studies up to 80%--of women on welfare have suffered some form of domestic violence, compared to 22% of the general population. In addition, between 3.3 and 10 million children witness domestic violence each year. Domestic violence survivors say their abuse was often a barrier to work, and many have reported being harassed or abused while at work. Most survivors needed welfare to escape the relationship and the violence. Any policy that provides incentives for women to become and stay married is in effect coercing poor women into marriage. Many women on welfare, like Renita Pitts, say that their marriages, rather than helping them out of poverty, set up overwhelming barriers to building their own autonomous and productive lives.

According to Kaaryn Gustafson, associate professor of law at the University of Connecticut, policies that attempt to look out for women's safety by restricting or coercing their activities are paternalistic and misguided. "The patriarchal model is really troubling. The gist is that if there isn't a man in the house there isn't a family. The studies of family well-being are all very problematic because you cannot parse out the issues of education, socioeconomic status, and other emotional and psychological issues that are tied up in who gets married and who doesn't."

Reproductive Straitjacket

While marriage promotion as a federal policy began in 1996, many say it is only one part of a much larger system of control over, and sanction of, the sexual and reproductive freedoms of poor women and women of color. Another part of this system is child exclusion legislation, which has been adopted by 21 states. Child exclusion laws permit states to pay benefits for only one child born to a woman on welfare. Social policy experts say it is a response to the myth that African-American welfare recipients were having more children in order to get larger benefit checks. Such laws push women either deeper into poverty, or into abortions. In some states, a woman who chooses to have another child instead of an abortion may end up trying to raise two or more children on less than $300 a month.

Christie, who would like to use only her first name, is a single mother of two. She has been working, supporting her children and herself, and going to college. Since her first child was born, she has also been receiving welfare. While on welfare, she fought to get a college degree in general education; now she hopes to get a job as a Spanish language translator. During her time in college, her welfare caseworker told Christie to quit going to school and instead report to a welfare-to-work program. She says, "I felt that it was a punishment. Just because I was on welfare, they could make me quit school and come and sit in a room and listen to people talking about the jobs I should get. Most of the jobs that they wanted you to have were geared towards the lower poverty level where you stay in poverty and you can never climb the socioeconomic ladder. It's like that's your position and that's where you have to stay."

When Christie became pregnant with her second child, her caseworker told her she could not receive an increase in her benefit. This forced Christie into some tough choices. "My religion kept me from having an abortion. I worked after I had my daughter, because I felt like it was a mistake that I made, and so I tried to do what I could for my daughter." Christie says this legislation penalizes women for having children, and creates an overwhelming sense of guilt that permeates low-income families. Rather than celebrating the birth of her daughter, Christie felt that she needed to work twice as hard to make up for her "mistake."

When states began adopting child exclusion policies in the early 1990s, they were implemented under federal scrutiny. States were required to keep data about the financial status of affected families. These data showed that child exclusion policies resulted in women and children being thrust further into poverty. One of the more sinister effects of the 1996 welfare reform law is that it did away with the requirement that states monitor the outcome of child exclusion policies. Since 1996, states have been able to impose sanctions on families without paying any attention to the results.

According to a July 2002 report by the Children's Sentinel Nutrition Assessment Program (C-SNAP), a research and advocacy collaborative, child exclusion policies are directly correlated to a number of risks to the health and well-being of children. Infants and toddlers in families that have been sanctioned under the child exclusion provisions are 30% more likely to have been hospitalized than children from families who have not been sanctioned, and these children are 90% more likely to require hospitalization at the time of an emergency room visit. In addition, child exclusion sanctions lead to food insecurity rates that are at least 50% higher than those of families who have not faced sanction. The negative health and welfare impacts reported in the C-SNAP study increase dramatically with each year that a family experiences sanctions.

Proponents of child exclusion legislation, including many members of the Bush administration and a bipartisan array of senators and representatives, claim that women on welfare have no business bringing a new child into the world whom they cannot support financially.

The United Sates has a long history of regulation of poor women's reproductive activities. From the forced sterilizations performed in low-income communities of color in the 1940s, 1950s, and even later, to state child services departments appropriating poor Native American children and giving them to upper-class white foster parents, many U.S. historians say that sexuality among lower-income communities of color has traditionally been viewed as something that should be controlled. The University of Connecticut's Gustafson responds, "There is this idea that if you pay taxes you have the right to control those who don't, and it smacks of slavery. There should be some scope of liberty that should be unconditional, and that especially includes sexuality and family formation."

There's no such respect for freedom and privacy under TANF. The program requires women to submit to a barrage of invasive questions and policies; TANF applicants must provide private details about every aspect of their lives. In California, for example, the application asks for the names of up to 12 men with whom a woman has had sexual relations on or around the time of her pregnancy. In San Diego county, before a woman can receive a welfare check, she must submit to a "surprise" visit by welfare case workers to verify that there isn't an unreported man in the household, among other things.

One of the problems with all of these sexual and reproductive-based policy initiatives is that, according to Gustafson, they distract people from the actual issues of poverty. While TANF accounts for less than 2% of the federal budget, the hysteria surrounding whether and how to assist poor families with children has created an uproar about whether low-income women should even be allowed to have children.

Because the 1996 welfare reform law eliminated the concept of welfare as an entitlement, welfare recipients lack certain protections other U.S. citizens have under the Constitution. In effect, when you apply for welfare you are signing away many of your constitutional rights. For this reason, many advocates today are critiquing welfare through the lens of human rights rather than constitutional rights. International human-rights agreements, including the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, afford women many universal human rights. "Those include access to education, access to reproductive choice, rights when it comes to marrying or not marrying," says Gustafson. "When you look at the international statements of human rights, it provides this context, this lens that magnifies how unjust the welfare laws are in the United States. The welfare system is undermining women's political, economic, and social participation in society at large."

On September 30, Congress passed another extension of the 1996 welfare legislation. This extension contained no policy changes--for now. When Congress does finally reauthorize welfare, child exclusion policies and marriage promotion are likely to be hot-button issues that galvanize the debate. According to Liz Accles at the National Welfare Made a Difference Campaign, there are three steps to a successful welfare strategy. "Access. Adequacy. Opportunity. All three of these hold equal weight. You cannot have benefits so low that people live deeply in poverty. You can't have good benefits that only a few people get access to. You also need to have opportunity for economic mobility built in."

Although the marriage promotion bill was defeated this time, it continues to enjoy strong bipartisan support--including support from the White House now that George W. Bush has a second term. Welfare recipients and social policy experts are worried that whenever welfare reform is debated, politicians will deem regulating the reproductive activities of poor women to be more important than funding proven anti-poverty measures like education and meaningful job opportunities.

Sarah Olson is a contributing reporter for Free Speech Radio News and the National Radio Project's "Making Contact." She is also a mentor and journalist at the Welfare Radio Collaborative.

RESOURCES  Joan Meisel, Daniel Chandler, and Beth Menees Rienzi, "Domestic Violence Prevalence and Effects on Employment in Two California TANF Populations," (California Institute of Mental Health, 2003); Richard Tolman and Jody Raphael, "A Review of the Research on Welfare and Domestic Violence," Journal of Social Issues, 2000; Sharmila Lawrence, "Domestic Violence and Welfare Policy: Research Findings That Can Inform Policies on Marriage and Child Well-Being: Issue Brief," (Research Forum on Children, Families, and the New Federalism, National Center for Children in Poverty, 2002); E. Lyon, "Welfare, Poverty and Abused Women: New Research and Its Implications," Policy and Practice Paper #10, Building Comprehensive Solutions to Domestic Violence, (National Resource Center on Domestic Violence, 2000).