Columnists > Voices

A marriage proposal

Welfare reformers are starting to ask the right questions

Issue: "Nuke nightmare," Feb. 25, 2006

Academics often say biblical belief has no place in the social sciences because it keeps people from open-minded analysis of data. Actually, the opposite is true: A biblical worldview often reveals the limitations of conventional approaches and pushes us to ask the right questions so that the data we obtain will not leave us still ignorant.

The new welfare-reform law's move to fund marriage education arises out of asking the right questions, and there's a story behind the change. Eleven years ago, bright people analyzed the data on welfare and concluded that Wisconsin's reforms, which included work requirements and time limits on benefits, should be the model for the nation.

I was one of many to visit in 1995 the Kenosha County Job Center, located in the southeast corner of Wisconsin. At that time Kenosha was the shiny face of state-level welfare reform: Twelve state delegations, dozens of reporting teams from networks and national magazines, and welfare bureaucrats from all over, including Tanzania, came and marveled.

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I wrote positively about the work requirements but noted a big problem: Feminism dominated the Kenosha center. On the walls of two large training rooms were signs proclaiming, "A family doesn't need a man to be whole," and "Stop waiting for Prince Charming, his horse broke down."

Well, yes and no. Kids without dads sometimes do fine, but when they're adults and look back, they'll tell you that they're not whole. And sure, welfare moms should not passively wait for Prince Charming, but for decades marriage has been the most-used exit from welfare rolls.

At a time when almost everyone was rapturously praising Wisconsin-style reform, and the Kenosha director was saying, "We tell them straight-out that marriage is not the answer," I was able to point out-not because I'm a good observer, but because of a biblical worldview-that marriage in many situations is the answer.

Since Wisconsin analysts didn't pay attention to marriage, they often didn't ask the right questions. They didn't realize that work requirements are necessary but not sufficient, since raising children without dads, even with incentives and governmental economic support, is hard economically and even harder psychologically.

Still, from 1996 through 2000 the Wisconsin welfare-reform model was dominant, and an emphasis on marriage and family dormant. Wisconsin-style welfare reform moved hundreds of thousands of people toward economic independence. But others stayed stuck, and in 2001 Wade Horn and other Bush appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services began asking why.

One reflection of the new thinking came in a conference report published late in 2003 by the Manhattan Institute, Whither Welfare Reform? Lessons from the Wisconsin Experience. In it NYU professor Lawrence Mead argues that "we must find a way to get the fathers involved," and New York Times welfare specialist Jason DeParle notes what his reporting showed him: "The biggest surprise to me was just how much yearning there was among the kids and their mothers for the fathers."

None of this is a surprise to those with a biblical worldview. God says in Genesis 2, "It is not good that the man should be alone." He tells Eve in Genesis 3, "Your desire shall be for your husband." The last verse of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:6, speaks of turning "the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers."

Can government (our modern god) do something to help? In the conference report Jason Turner, who led the welfare-reform campaign in Wisconsin and then took it to New York City, states sadly, "There is no solution that I can think of that will fundamentally affect men at the moment." Outside of religious revival he's probably right, but the new law is an attempt to find out what, if anything, government can do-and since we've tried just about everything else we might as well try an emphasis on marriage.

But back to my original point: Biblical social scientists have an advantage because they know truths about human nature. Those who dismiss the Bible and create surveys that don't measure crucial factors are the ones who have closed minds. Sometimes the Bible gives us clear answers and sometimes it doesn't, but it always helps us to ask the right questions.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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