- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

People who think “compassionate conservatism” is really dressed-up liberalism will be crowing about the “marriage development accounts” (MDAs) that Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, wants to test in the District of Columbia. The unquestionably conservative goal is to promote marriage. But the unquestionably liberal method is to give low- and middle-income people cash handouts. And sure enough, the concept turns out to be largely a retooling of an existing big-government program.

The accounts — tucked into next year’s District of Columbia appropriations bill — would match every dollar saved by married or engaged couples in Washington who earn less than $50,000 with $3 from the federal government and a nonprofit. The maximum in matching funds would be $9,000. By Mr. Brownback’s rules, the money could only be used for select purposes: purchasing a home, paying for college or opening a business. He has set aside $3 million for the project, slightly more than a third of which will go directly into the accounts.

Mr. Brownback’s logic: “I believe that improving a couple’s financial stability can help sustain a healthy marriage. Marriage has an enormous potential to reduce poverty among couples who are unmarried at the time of their child’s birth.” Ergo, the federal government should step in to subsidize it.

This sounds faintly like compassionate conservatism, but it’s actually an echo of an existing liberal idea, retooled as promoting marriage. The telling detail is the contractor to whom Mr. Brownback assigns the project. The Capital Area Asset Building Corporation, a D.C. nonprofit, already administers “individual development accounts,” which were hatched in the 1990s and are similar to MDAs. But, unlike the MDAs, this is not the brainchild of promoters of marriage, but of local-liberal ideologues. Council member David Catania is the D.C. politician who most prominently pushed the IDA concept, enacted by Congress in 2001. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton thinks Mr. Brownback’s accounts “hold considerable promise.” All of which reveals this to be a reliably liberal idea packaged as pro-family conservatism, pushed by the odd couple — Mr. Brownback and Mrs. Norton.

Wouldn’t it be easier to give a larger tax break to married couples? If the aim is to promote marriage, why launder tax money through the District’s inefficient professional social-service providers?

We nevertheless commend Mr. Brownback and Mrs. Norton for focusing on a real problem afflicting Washingtonians. More than half of the District’s births occur out of wedlock. This is a genuine crisis — as is the fact that an estimated one-fifth of the District’s population live below the poverty level. These problems require serious attention from our political leadership. Sadly, it appears the best these leaders can do is provide more government handouts.

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