- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 15, 2001

LaShaun Wilson spent 10 years in the District's welfare system raising four sons and a daughter. Now she is moving into the workforce and is celebrating one year of marriage.Welfare rules played a role in her decisions, said the mother of five, who is part of a new trend of welfare mothers who are marrying their partners. Before the 1996 welfare-reform law, "the whole system created an atmosphere of fear. You couldn't say, 'I have a boyfriend or a fiance,' because it would put the benefits in jeopardy," Mrs. Wilson said recently in the offices of the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization (IRFFR), a group that works to connect fragmented families and help parents find jobs.
When welfare reform came with work rules and a five-year time limit on federal benefits, Mrs. Wilson said, she talked things over with a girlfriend who was also on welfare.
"We said, 'What do we have to lose?' Forget welfare, we can do this," she said, adding that her friend married shortly after she did.
Mrs. Wilson's decision to marry went beyond welfare, though.
"I decided to marry because I came into a greater consciousness of life and faith," she said carefully. "Marriage is better than the stress of different relationships. And I got tired of all that drama and nonsense."
She is not alone in her decision to leave single motherhood for marriage, according to two studies using different sets of data.
Between 1995 and 2000, the number of poor single-mother families of all races fell from 20.1 percent to 18.5 percent, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) said in a recent report, citing census data.
The number of married and cohabiting families grew slightly in a study of all races, the CBPP report said.
But when only black families were considered, the data showed "substantial" changes: The number of black children living with single mothers fell from 47.8 percent to 43.5 percent, the number of black children living with married parents rose from 35.4 percent to 39.4 percent, and those living with cohabiting mothers rose from 2.9 percent to 4.3 percent.
The Urban Institute found similar trends between 1997 and 1999 in its 44,000-family National Survey of America's Families.
Looking at families of all income levels, the institute found that the number of children living with single mothers dropped by 2.1 percentage points. It also found that while marriage rates stayed the same or declined in most income levels, marriage rates increased among the poorest families.
What's going on? "That's really the next big question," said Wendell Primus, a senior research analyst at CBPP.
Welfare reform, tougher child-support rules, the fatherhood movement and a strong economy all likely played a role, he said. "But, as with all social phenomena, the reasons for the factors that are driving this change are complex."
Welfare reform set a goal of encouraging two-parent families, said Greg Acs, co-author of the Urban Institute report. Since the biggest changes in living arrangements are happening in low-income or low-education families, he said, "it suggests that welfare policies may have contributed to the decline in single parenting and rise in cohabitation."
The welfare system has long had "keep out" signs for men. Its modest but dependable government checks, food stamps, housing and health insurance were targeted to single mothers and their children.
"You can't have a male figure in the home. That's what welfare says — your husband is Uncle Sam," said Evelyn Demonbreun of Nashville, Tenn., who went on welfare in 1997 and lived on and off with Donald Demonbreun, the father of her two children. The young couple, who is active with the IRFFR, married a few weeks ago.
Mrs. Demonbreun's fear of losing benefits over "a man in the house" often caused her to chase away Mr. Demonbreun.
"When we were trying to work things out and get together as a family, our main concern was the government and how we'd support ourselves," Mr. Demonbreun said. "I'd come by early morning or late at night just to see my kids. It was always like a dodge game."
Many states have taken steps to dismantle "at least some of the anti-marriage policies" in welfare, Wade F. Horn, now an assistant secretary in the federal agency that oversees welfare reform, said in a Brookings Institution report issued this summer.
But even under welfare reform, marriage is still financially perilous to poor couples, Urban Institute senior fellow C. Eugene Steuerle told a congressional hearing in May.
For example, he said, if a welfare mother with two children doesn't work but lives with a man who earns $8 an hour, or $16,640 a year, their total household income is $28,590.
But if this couple marries, he said, she loses $5,052 in cash welfare and $2,098 in food stamps. Some of this loss is offset by the Earned Income Tax Credit, but in the end, he said, the couple loses $4,366 a year by marrying.
Sociology professor Kathyrn Edin has found that many welfare mothers — 52 percent in one study — have secretly allowed men in their homes. Marriage, however, was a big step, she told the same congressional hearing.
Many women are "willing and even eager to wed" if marriage means upward mobility and the man isn't abusive, domineering or apt to "fool around" with women, Mrs. Edin said. But if women can't find such a man, "most would rather remain single and raise their children alone."
Besides welfare, newly married couples said, they had to deal with ex-spouses, prison, substance abuse and lack of relationship skills before reaching the altar.
"I did love him," said Mrs. Demonbreun.
"But we didn't know how to be a family," her husband chimed in.
Andre and Charmaine Boulware of Northeast Washington married last year after dating two years. They now have a houseful of sons. "We married because I trusted him and it's the right thing to do," said Mrs. Boulware, who is leaving welfare for work with help from the IRFFR.
"I got married to experience the challenge, to prove to myself that I could be a father, a dad. To be that person I never had," said Mr. Boulware, who has endured foster care and prison and is now employed by a private firm.
Another IRFFR family, Henry Harris Jr., and his wife, Towanda, had similar ups and downs. She married as a teen, went on welfare and broke up with her husband. She went on welfare again as a single mother, met Mr. Harris and had a child with him. But she wasn't ready to jeopardize her welfare or independence for a man who she feared would fail her too.
The couple, who had eight children between them, eventually reconciled. They have been married since January 1999 and are both working.
"I asked him to marry me," said Mrs. Harris. "I said, regardless of the welfare system, they couldn't take me away from the man who I wanted to be with."

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