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Profile | The Bush administration's Wade Horn pushes marriage as an important weapon in the war on poverty

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

"Fight poverty. Stay married."

That could be a Wade Horn bumper sticker.

Mr. Horn is one of the chief architects of the George W. Bush administration strategy of making the two-parent family central to the battle against poverty. With a Ph.D. in child psychology Mr. Horn is not inclined to a bumper-sticker approach to family issues. He acknowledges the exceptions and tries not to be simplistic. Yet as a general rule, children need a father and mother as a parenting team, he says, and government shouldn't be afraid to wrap its policies around that kind of wisdom.

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Mr. Horn's task is to help the Bush administration take a step-by-step approach to stamping family-friendly policies on federal social programs.

His title, like much of the federal government, is bloated: "Assistant Secretary for Children and Families with the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

But his message is compact: "Government sends a signal to the culture. It has enormous impact in the kinds of messages it sends out," he said. "When government is afraid to use the word marriage it sends a message that marriage is no longer something we should value. Just recapturing the word is valuable."

He takes the message around the country, explaining administration policies and making the pitch for the administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative, which may be included in the renewal of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in Congress. The proposal, to allow states to finance marriage education for low-income people, has sparked some controversy and has been delayed in previous sessions of Congress.

Mr. Horn contends that the legislation is cost-effective because the breakdown of a family ultimately costs the taxpayer. "It's also not about turning my agency into a dating service," he said. "What it is about is helping couples choose marriage services so they can sustain healthy marriages."

Mr. Horn signed on with the Bush administration after the 2000 election. His credentials for the spot included his presidency of the National Fatherhood Initiative in the 1990s. In his research he had discovered that troubled children and teens almost always had a physically or emotionally absentee father. He also saw the pattern as he ran psychological services at a children's hospital in Washington, D.C. Having served in the first Bush administration, Mr. Horn became a key activist in highlighting the growing number of studies that emphasize the importance of fathers and two-parent families.

Remembering that effort, White House staffer Tim Goeglein calls him "one of the original compassionate conservatives," having made the intellectual case in the 1990s for policies that would make up part of the compassionate-conservative agenda.

Mr. Horn mixes a passion for the traditional family and its benefits for children with an affable, low-key manner that even some of his ideological opponents have appreciated in numerous encounters with him. He is intense about his mission, but not about his ego or his part in the mission. With a strong background in academics, he knows how to use research to point people to what is biblically true, without appealing directly to the Scriptures.

For libertarians who think the government should just stay out of the family business, Mr. Horn points out that the government already is well-entrenched in it. For example, in divorce custody disputes, government officials spend plenty of expensive time telling parents when, where, and how they can see their children.

Government ought to follow the best practices, Mr. Horn points out. Research favors the two-parent family, especially for children. So far this approach has not attracted any catchy political slogan, such as the New Deal or the Great Society, which reflected the big-government approach of earlier political eras. Perhaps this family-friendly approach cannot be captured in a political slogan, anyway, since government only plays a secondary supporting role.

Yet with or without a slogan, this low-key policy on family could prove to be one of the most significant legacies of the Bush administration. It might not hurt to print up some of those bumper stickers as well.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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