- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Julie Baumgardner is a busy woman: Her family-strengthening organization, First Things First, is in the middle of a fundraising drive for its regular $1 million budget, plus she is scrambling to prepare for the first $1 million installment of a $5 million federal marriage grant her group won this month.

“We are rocking and rolling,” she said last week from her office in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Mrs. Baumgardner’s plans are to produce advertisements and public-service announcements about the benefits of marriage, which she eventually will make available at no cost to other groups. “This benefits everybody,” she said.

First Things First also will step up its relationship-skills classes for teens, young adults, unwed couples, expectant parents, engaged couples, married couples and struggling couples, and collaborate in various family-strengthening programs with other groups.

“People are hungering for healthy relationships,” she said. The message that people can learn how to do this successfully should “spread like wildfire.”

Marriage in America received an unprecedented boost this month when the Health and Human Services Department’s Administration for Children and Families (ACF) announced $118 million in federal grants for 225 pro-marriage and responsible-fatherhood programs.

The California Healthy Marriages Coalition in Cerritos, Calif., won the biggest grant, $2.3 million. The coalition and other recipients will receive grants every year for five years. When related administrative, research and technical assistance expenditures are added, marriage and fatherhood funds from this one funding stream eventually should reach $750 million.

This marks a quantum leap in spending: Before the grants were created in the welfare-reform section of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, ACF agencies had spent about $20 million a year on healthy marriage and about $4 million a year on responsible fatherhood.

News of the grants is bolstering hopes among activists that the nation is getting serious about tackling the problem of family breakdown.

“This is the first time Congress has actually authorized spending on marriage,” said Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education and organizer of the annual “Smart Marriages” conferences. “It was like, ‘They finally get it that marriage is important for the culture and for the well-being of society and men, women and children,’ ” she said.

Heritage Foundation welfare analyst Robert Rector said the collapse of marriage is a primary cause of social problems. The grants are “a very belated, but welcome recognition” that the government can “actively begin to do something to rebuild this institution.”

Critics say the explosion in pro-marriage and responsible-fatherhood funding just means less funding for programs that are important to most people.

There is no evidence that marriage and fatherhood programs have any effect on reducing poverty, said Tim Casey, staff lawyer for Legal Momentum, a women’s rights group in New York. “In fact, it makes sense that since these are dollars taken away from direct services that the public actually values, like child care and employment services, in that sense, it could be increasing poverty.”

The new grants “will be used to propagandize a narrow set of beliefs about family structure” and fuel “negative stigmas” about nontraditional family forms, warned the Alternatives to Marriage Project. “As more than half of all American households are now headed by unmarried people, this is an inappropriate use of government funds,” added the group, which is based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families, said the ACF grants should provide a wealth of information.

“One of the things we learned from early projects, particularly in healthy marriage, is that three-year grants were not enough, given the newness of government funding of these projects,” he said. The five-year grants should allow recipients to provide three to four years of services, which “will give us enough sustained activity to determine what the actual impact of what these services are.”

Grant recipients must provide evaluations of their programs and may be asked to participate in a national evaluation.

Mr. Rector said significant results shouldn’t be expected for a while. “It took us at least 15 years of rather broad experimentation with welfare-to-work programs before we found anything that actually was successful,” he said. “Rebuilding marriage is more difficult.”

Mrs. Baumgardner, whose organization is celebrating its 10-year anniversary, thinks a breakthrough is at hand. If grant recipients are “good stewards … and work like crazy, we have the real opportunity to educate people” about how to have strong families and good relationships, she said. “What could happen in five years could be absolutely amazing for our children, for all of us.”

“Healthy marriage” grants totaled $3.5 million a year for seven local organizations, including the Best Friends Foundation, which received $500,000 a year, and Boat People SOS Inc. in Falls Church, which will get $549,306 a year.

In the “responsible fatherhood” category, the District’s Department of Human Services won a $2-million-a-year grant, Baltimore’s Department of Human Resources won two grants worth $1.3 million a year, the National Fatherhood Initiative in Gaithersburg won a nearly $1-million-a-year “capacity building” grant and six other local organizations won a total of $1.9 million a year.

Another big bid was for the national Healthy Marriage Resource Center. Public Strategies Inc. of Oklahoma City, Okla., run by Mary Myrick, a veteran organizer in that state’s marriage movement, won that $2-million-a-year grant.

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