Stephen Baars has a few impediments to connecting with his current audience. Among them: He’s a redheaded white guy. He’s a rabbi. And he has a British accent.
None of these was a big problem when Baars was offering his “Bliss” marriage enhancement seminars to suburban Jews in Bethesda, Maryland. But in 2006, much to his surprise, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded him a five-year, $500,000-a-year “Healthy Marriage” grant. His federally mandated mission: to bring down the divorce rate in Washington, DC, whose population is more than 55 percent black and 20 percent poor. So for the past two years or so, Baars has been running ads in local papers and on black radio stations to entice couples to drop by his office in a gritty area just north of the Capitol and “create relationships that win!”
On a warm Thursday night in May, Baars, dressed in a gray suit and yarmulke, is sitting alone in his third-floor conference room, awaiting some bliss seekers. He understands that achieving his federal grant’s goal is “a tough nut to crack.” “When you’re dealing with that degree of poverty, it’s very hard for people to take this seriously,” he says. “I read many black magazines,” he adds—but even so, the cultural disconnect can be daunting. “Twenty or thirty percent of the people who come here can’t deal with it.”
Baars says his course usually draws 8 or 10 people a night. He acknowledges that many of them aren’t married, just looking for relationship advice. “We’ve even had gay people.” Tonight, though, 45 minutes after start time, not even one straight person has shown up to get Bliss.
rabbi baars is just one of the many unlikely foot soldiers executing one of President George W. Bush’s few big domestic policy initiatives. From its earliest days, the administration has insisted that marriage is not just a sacred institution, but a powerful way to restore family values, reduce poverty, and protect children. Announcing the creation of Marriage Protection Week in October 2003, Bush cited findings that “children raised in households headed by married parents fare better than children who grow up in other family structures.” More than a not-so-subtle dig at gay marriage, it was a reaffirmation that the federal government was now in the business of “helping couples build successful marriages.”
In early 2001, Bush appointed Wade Horn, a conservative psychologist, as the nation’s first marriage czar. Horn spent the next six years as the Department of Health and Human Services assistant secretary for children and families, making sure federal programs from Head Start to welfare were doing their part to get the wedding bells pealing. Previously, Horn had been one of the leading figures in the marriage movement—an offshoot of the family-values camp that sought to defend the traditional family from the destructive influence of women’s libbers and single moms. As the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, Horn attacked what he called the “we hate marriage” elites and infuriated women’s groups by defending the Southern Baptist Convention’s proclamation that women should “submit” to their husbands’ “servant leadership.” Horn believed that federal poverty programs should be vehicles for marriage promotion, proposing in a 1997 article that the government boost the marriage rate in poor neighborhoods by prohibiting unmarried people from taking advantage of programs like Head Start and public housing.
Once confirmed, Horn toned down his rhetoric, but plowed ahead in transforming federal poverty programs into vehicles for marriage promotion. During his first three years, the Administration for Children and Families took $62 million budgeted for anti-poverty programs and gave it instead to a host of new, largely faith-based organizations to implement new marriage-promotion programs. That diversion included $20 million from the block grant that funds local agencies that do everything from run Head Start programs to provide heating assistance to seniors. The agency also shifted $27 million in research money from studying things like whether people who are cut from welfare rolls get jobs to measuring how these new programs affect “marital satisfaction.”
That was just the beginning. The administration’s ultimate goal was to dedicate a significant chunk of the $16.5 billion federal welfare budget to marriage promotion. When the 1996 welfare reform bill came up for reauthorization in Congress in 2002, the White House sought to divert $300 million a year from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program into its marriage initiatives. It also wanted to force tanf (i.e., welfare) recipients to attend marriage-promotion classes as a “work activity,” and sanction them if they didn’t. “We used to joke, ‘Does dating count?'” says Kate Kahan, a former staffer for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) who worked on the bill. “The focus was so much on the certificate of marriage,” she says. “It was so ideological and disconnected from what was happening on the ground with families.”
The White House eventually won much of the battle to make welfare more marriage minded—in large part, says Kahan, because Democrats never really figured out how to fight back. Many liberal members of Congress were genuinely concerned about the disintegration of low-income families, particularly the fact that 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock. And of course, no one wanted to come out against marriage. The final welfare bill, passed in 2006, provided no new money for family assistance, but it set aside $100 million a year for creating new marriage programs.
that’s how the federal government started helping Americans put a little sizzle back in their love lives. Taxpayers are now paying for Brownsville, Texas, residents to attend island retreats where they can discover “how to keep the romance alive.” They’re paying for couples massage classes, date nights, and “sexual enhancement” workshops in Clearfield, Pennsylvania; a “sweetheart dinner dance” in Sacramento; courses on deciphering your spouse’s “love language” in Wyoming; and “10 Great Dates” seminars in dozens of cities.
According to the federally funded National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, a third of the grantees whom the Healthy Marriage Initiative rushed to fund have no previous experience in marriage education. Many of the rest are marriage entrepreneurs—motivational speakers with businesses that sell seminars, books, CDs, and videos. Among them is Dr. Susan Heitler, a Denver psychotherapist who created an online video game in which a middle-class African American couple bickers over the flowers for its upcoming wedding. Click the wrong answer, and Heitler appears on-screen to gently correct you—and pitch her book, Power of Two: Secrets to a Strong & Loving Marriage. Mark Gungor, a minister in Green Bay, Wisconsin, has received a $265,000 annual grant to present his “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” seminars to Hispanics around the country. Chris Ferrell, who translates the sessions into Spanish, says his boss always wanted to get in touch with his Latino roots. In 2006, acf awarded a $548,000 annual grant to Granato Counseling Services to offer its FIT Relationships™ program to low-income married couples with children in Washington, DC. Unable to find enough married parents in a city where more than 90 percent of poor women with kids are single, the program expanded to the Virginia suburbs. There, explains company founder Laura Granato, it now tries to reach recent Hispanic immigrants—some of the same people that the administration has tried to deport.
Some state social service agencies have gotten marriage money, as have some old-line anti-poverty organizations that have tacked marriage programs on to their existing services. And a good chunk of the funding has gone to anti-abortion and pro-abstinence groups, as well as right-wing Christian organizations that lobby against gay marriage.While the marriage money comes from welfare, it’s not actually required to go toward serving low-income people. Nor does the federal government require Healthy Marriage grantees to show much in the way of progress. Programs aren’t required to track their participants’ marital fortunes. When asked if any of the programs are working, Theodora Ooms, a consultant to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, responds, “What do you mean by working?” Ooms says that sometimes the measure of an effective marriage education program is a couple that decides not to tie the knot.
If Democrats had proposed spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a social program whose only measure of success was whether its beneficiaries were happy in love, they would have been laughed out of town. But Republicans have stuck by Healthy Marriage, for better or for worse. “It’s only $100 million a year,” says Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the former senior adviser for welfare policy at the Bush White House. And, he adds, “If we had the marriage rate that we had in the 1970s, the poverty rate would fall 30 percent.”
That questionable statistic has convinced some liberals to get on the marriage bandwagon. Robert Lerman, an economist at the Urban Institute, says the disintegration of the American family is having a devastating effect on poor children, and it’s “long past time that we took the family structure issue more seriously.”
However, marriage advocates have not satisfied critics who claim that marriage is a product—not a cause—of financial security. After all, one poor person married to another poor person equals two poor people. A 2004 study by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research found that single moms on welfare who got married were in fact no better off financially than those who stayed single, and their children didn’t fare any better either. In fact, poor women who never got married were often better off than those who got married and then divorced. For instance, welfare recipients whose marriages ended during the study were twice as likely to have their power cut off and twice as likely to move in with other people because they couldn’t afford housing than women who remained single.
Even if marriage is a bona fide anti-poverty tool, there is virtually no research indicating how, precisely, the government might get poor people to embrace it. The only social program that’s ever demonstrated an increase in the marriage rate of poor women with children caused it by accident. Started in 1994, the Minnesota Family Investment Program allowed women to keep more of their welfare benefits when they went to work, rather than cutting them off. During the three-year experiment and for a few years afterward, black women’s divorce rate fell 70 percent. The positive effects on kids also continued for several years.
Minnesota’s experience suggests that President Bush wasn’t entirely wrong to think that the government can play a positive role in stabilizing families. Yet it also showed that strengthening poor families requires something quite simple: money, which the administration has been extremely reluctant to allocate. For seven straight years, it has proposed freezing federal child care funding; if Congress approves the continued freeze, an estimated 200,000 kids will lose their child care slots next year. Bush has also twice vetoed a bill that would have expanded the State Child Health Insurance Program (schip) to include more poor working families. And since 2004, budget cuts have eliminated more than 150,000 housing vouchers for poor families; only one-quarter of eligible families now get housing assistance.
All of which may help explain why the marriage president’s legacy includes an out-of-wedlock birthrate that stands at nearly 40 percent, an all-time high.
one year ago, Donald and Octavia Knight were living in a dank basement in a drug-infested, crime-ridden Baltimore neighborhood. The space often flooded, and it crawled with rats. Though Octavia was nine months pregnant, they slept on crates. Despite their dire circumstances, on June 24, 2007, they got married—with no prompting from President Bush. “We were in love,” laughs Donald. Two weeks later, Tavien Donald Knight was born, the only baby they know whose parents are married to each other.
From the start, the Knights’ marriage faced long odds. Octavia, now 22, only finished 11th grade. Donald, 49, got his high school diploma while he was in prison in the 1980s. Both worked, but their earnings fell well below the federal poverty line of $17,170 a year for a family of three. Tavien’s birth nearly derailed their relationship. The baby was born with light skin; Donald is dark skinned. “I went a little Jerry Springer,” he confesses.
Before they left the hospital with their newborn, the Knights were recruited into the Baltimore Building Strong Families program, one of the Healthy Marriage Initiative’s showcase projects. Unlike the work done by many of the newer marriage grantees, Building Strong Families is based on actual research. Social scientists have found that more than 80 percent of unwed, low-income parents were in a romantic relationship at the time of their babies’ birth; while many hoped to marry, most split up soon afterward. Those studies suggest that supporting parents at this critical time might keep men more involved in their kids’ lives.
The centerpiece of Building Strong Families is a support group for new parents that meets weekly for six months, teaching couples a variety of skills from conflict resolution to money management—standard marriage education stuff, tailored to poor, black Baltimoreans. The program provides free dinner, child care, and transportation. Caseworkers visit participants at home to help with housing, child care, health insurance, and other services; the visits continue for six months after they finish the program. Even if the participants don’t get married—and most won’t—the hope is that they will do a better job of raising their kids together. As of June, there had been a grand total of 8 weddings among the 680 or so couples that had been through the program in the past three years.
The Knights have attended nearly every one of their classes. Donald says that the program, with its focus on navigating domestic disputes, helped him work through the crisis that followed Tavien’s birth. (It helped that the baby soon became the spitting image of his dad.)
On a rainy Wednesday night in May, a Building Strong Families van delivers the Knights and their 10-month-old son to the program’s office in Sandtown-Winchester, a neighborhood that frequently served as the backdrop for The Wire. After leaving Tavien in child care, the couple joins six other people for a session on managing money. Two women are here solo because the fathers of their babies are now in prison; one says she hopes the classes will help her choose a better mate in the future.
Afra Vance White, the program director, starts the discussion by asking, “Is money a cause of stress in your relationship?” Donald Knight volunteers that he needs to get a new job, but needs child care to make that happen. Vance White asks whether the couple has tried to get a subsidized child care voucher; Donald says the paperwork is too complicated. He doesn’t mention that Octavia actually received a voucher after the baby was born. But once she got a $6.30 an hour job at Burger King, social services cut her off, saying she was making enough to support her family and pay her own child care bill. The cost of child care would consume more than half of her weekly paycheck, so taking care of Tavien has fallen to Donald, leaving him earning $100 a week as a church janitor.
Six months of group therapy seems like a thin shell protecting the Knights’ marriage from the ravages of poverty. Though they’ve moved to a new, rat-free apartment in a quieter neighborhood, they don’t have health insurance. (Tavien only recently got coverage.) And the child care problem remains a huge obstacle to any hopes of upward mobility. “We’re married,” Donald says, “but we’re still broke.”
back at his still-empty office, Rabbi Baars does Bliss for an audience of one—me—with the poise of someone who has flopped in front of a crowd. (He took a class in stand-up comedy at ucla and once performed at the Improv in Santa Monica.) His yarmulke keeps falling off as he gets into his material, which is thoughtful and occasionally funny. Baars likes to quote Woody Allen: “Sex is like pizza: When it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
An hour and 15 minutes after the session was supposed to start, a black woman in a turquoise tank top comes up the stairs and collapses into a chair. Chan Taylor says she heard about the seminar on the radio. “I need Bliss because right now I’m getting blistered,” she says with a hearty laugh. Taylor wants to know if Baars will talk about “what happens if we marry frogs and turn them into princes and they hop away?” At a loss for an answer, Baars chuckles nervously.
Taylor isn’t married, nor does she have a boyfriend. Her two children are grown, placing her squarely outside Healthy Marriage’s target group. But she hopes to be a good wife someday and asks Baars if his class will teach her “how to pick the right person.” Baars gently tells her no, and refers her to his dating program, Bliss for Singles.
I ask Baars if he’s saved anyone’s marriage. He insists that he has, but admits that progress is difficult to document. “It’s hard to measure if you’re happily married,” he says. “Is it achieving the government’s goal of reducing poverty? That I can’t answer.”