- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2010

Is the Obama administration trying to divorce the federal government from the marriage business? Yes, the White House is ditching the only real federal effort to strengthen the institution of marriage, say some marriage-movement activists, who are already lamenting the loss of the Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grant program.

But others, including those involved in federal and local fatherhood programs, say not really - its replacement program is an important adjustment in family policy.

Still others say the marriage money may be gone, but people should save their tears - government funds have already done what they can to till the soil and it’s now time for private enterprise and religious groups to step up and revive America’s marriage culture.

The center of this debate is located in two lines of the Obama administration’s 2011 budget.

One zeroes out the $150 million Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grants, and the other creates a $500 million Fatherhood, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund, aimed at issuing three-year competitive grants to states. The new fund absorbs the funding of the George W. Bush-era marriage and fatherhood grants.

The change perplexes Nisa Muhammad, founder of Wedded Bliss Foundation, which has celebrated the weddings of more than 100 low-income couples in recent months.

“Marriage” is in the title of the new innovation fund, she said, but “when you read deeper … where’d it go?”

The description of new fund’s purpose is even more discouraging for marriage watchers. Half the money is slated for state-initiated responsible fatherhood and employment programs, “including those with a marriage component,” budget language explains.

The other half will go to programs for “custodial parents,” i.e., single mothers. Fundable activities include job training, substance-abuse treatment, child-support enforcement and other anti-poverty activities that already receive funding from dozens - if not hundreds - of federal programs.

“Job-training programs have been going on for years and years, and now we want to revert back to that? We are in a different state and time,” Mrs. Muhammad said. “There’s really a disconnect” in Washington, she added. “They really don’t understand what the breakdown of the two-parent family means for children.”

Marriage-movement leaders assert that healthy marriages are good for adults, children and society, and newly developed marriage-education programs can effectively teach men and women how to find good spouses and keep their marriages stable and happy.

The urgent task is to infuse these new skills into American communities, particularly those where marriage rates are low and poverty rates are high, they say.

When President Obama was elected, no one knew what he would do with the Bush administration’s healthy marriage initiative, which has disbursed $100 million a year for healthy marriages and $50 million a year for responsible fatherhood grants.

The 2011 budget finally tipped his hand - and set off some alarm bells in the marriage movement.

“Elimination of the federal funding will be a signal to the states that marriage education programs are not worth funding with government funds,” Chris Gersten, executive director of the Fatherhood and Marriage Leadership Institute (FAMLI), said in a letter to supporters.

This proposal shows that current political leaders “are completely out of touch with African American and Hispanic leaders across the nation who have embraced the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative,” added Mr. Gersten, who worked on marriage issues during his years at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

However, two leaders of fatherhood programs are more sanguine about the new innovation fund.

Upgrading people’s employment and relationship skills is already a core concept at Baltimore’s Center for Urban Families (CFUF).

It’s called “family stability and economic success,” said Joseph T. Jones Jr., founder and president of CFUF. “You can’t [do one without the other]. You’ve got to have the combination.”

He offered a real-world explanation: CFUF helps a father get a job. The father learns how to show up on time, work hard and keep a great attitude, and he’s a success at work.

Let’s also say this father is in a relationship with his child’s mother, and they “really feel good about one another romantically,” said Mr. Jones. “But a month later, I get a call from [the child’s mother], who says, ‘Mr. Jones, I am really glad you helped him get a job, and he’s doing really well on the job. But when he gets paid, he’s not coming home, and he’s not contributing to the care of the child in terms of buying Pampers or milk, or any of those other things that go into parenting.’ ”

Just because a man has been taught about personal responsibility in the workplace doesn’t mean he’s being responsible as a parent, said Mr. Jones. “That’s why we inserted that word ‘stability’ ” into the CFUF program - it means “managing your personal behavior … so that you sacrifice for the family that you decided to enter into.”

Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), also sees a “net positive” in the program change.

The proposed $500 million is the largest investment ever proposed for fatherhood programming, “and the fact that the president put out a marker that big is very significant,” said Mr. Warren.

Also, the new fund will give grants to states, which will put fatherhood “on the radar of every single governor in the nation” and could result in the formation of many local “fatherhood, marriage and family” coalitions, he said.

As for marriage, the NFI has “always been focused on the importance of marriage,” Mr. Warren said.

“It’s not political, it’s practical,” he said. “Fathering is about location, location, location,” and a man who is not in conflict with the mother of his child, and actually lives in the home with them will have the best chance to be an involved father.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the national Let’s Strengthen Marriage campaign has a different view, which is to not fund either the marriage grants or the innovation fund.

“The Obama administration should adopt the conclusion of experts at the White House Roundtable on Health Marriages on April 15, 2008,” which Let’s Strengthen Marriage leaders “helped organize with others working with the Office of Faith-based and Commmunity Initiatives,” New York investment banker Chuck Stetson said in a statement to The Washington Times.

The experts’ conclusion “was that no more government money was necessary beyond the initial $500 million Healthy Marriage Initiative” because it built “capacity” in a number of community organizations, said Mr. Stetson, who is also chairman of National Marriage Week USA and the Bible Literacy Project.

Certainly, government can encourage marriage as a social good, and help get marriage data to legislators, and a small federal office could be set up “to encourage private enterprises, including the faith communities, to focus on marriage preparation, including dating and courtship, abstinence and marriage enrichment programs,” he said.

But “beyond that, the government needs to stop spending any more money in this area. … The churches and houses of worship need to be on the front lines.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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