The Right Wing Roots of Marriage Promotion

Posted By Thomas Perez. Used By Permission.

Executive Summary
By Dr. Jean V. Hardisty

January, 2008

This report is the result of a two-year investigation by political scientist Jean Hardisty into the George W. Bush Administration’s marriage promotion and fatherhood initiatives. Dr. Hardisty locates these initiatives within the context of the Right’s family values ideology and investigates their scope, scale, intellectual and operational origins, merits, and outcomes. Pushed to the Altar: The Right Wing Roots of Marriage Promotion is the most comprehensive examination to date of the ideological roots of these programs.

In 2001 the newly installed Administration of George W. Bush appointed Wade Horn as Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The appointment presaged a substantial shift in federal social welfare policy. Horn had served as the titular head of the rightist fatherhood movement during the 1990s. At HHS, he was to use the Administration’s redefined and expanded faith-based initiatives (among other means) to support organizations that encourage women – especially welfare recipients – to marry their way out of poverty.

The Administration’s success in promoting this agenda can be seen in Congress’ allocation of $100 million annually for marriage promotion programs over fiscal years 2006–2010 (a total of $500 million) as part of welfare reauthorization in the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act. Such Congressional funding for marriage promotion was preceded, and continues to be supplemented, by a variety of Executive Branch and state government grant programs.

Wade Horn’s appointment to HHS illustrates the close ties between the Bush Administration and various right-wing opinion makers, intellectuals, advocacy groups, and mass-based organizations. Since 2001, Horn and The Heritage Foundation have been leading strategists of the Right’s agenda for “welfare reform.” For the fatherhood movement, conservative opponents of liberal antipoverty programs, and the Christian Right, the Bush Administration has provided a golden opportunity to promote marriage as a cure for poverty, and “responsible fatherhood” as a means to restore community health as they envision it.

What follows is a summary of the findings in Pushed to the Altar: The Right Wing Roots of Marriage Promotion.

The arguments in favor of marriage and fatherhood promotion as a cure for poverty are ultimately ideological in nature. There is no solid evidence from the social sciences that marriage results in a higher income for poor women.

The George W. Bush Administration’s ideology, policies, and programs on marriage and fatherhood show how thoroughly politicized U.S. welfare policy has become. Conservatives who maintain that marriage and fatherhood will cure poverty are relying on two major sources: the analysis of sociologist George Gilder – specifically Gilder’s assertion that marriage and fatherhood channel men’s aggression and lack of work ethic toward work and maintaining the family; and the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 government report, in which he concluded that female-headed households were dysfunctional and that the African-American community was plagued by “fatherlessness,” resulting in a culture of pathology. These are examples of bad science: reducing the explanation for phenomena as complex as family formation and poverty alleviation to one single causal factor: heterosexual marriage.

The assertion that marriage will cure poverty and end fatherlessness is simply unproven. The Administration’s agenda is to replace “liberal” programs that are known to raise people out of poverty with programs that advance conservatives’ social and economic goals but have no record of reducing poverty.

Government marriage promotion experiments are funded at the expense of proven poverty relief programs.

As federal and state allocations for marriage promotion and fatherhood programs have dramatically increased, welfare benefits themselves have steadily fallen. While reducing welfare benefits, implementing “disincentives” for welfare recipients to have children (such as the “child exclusion” provision), and implementing a five-year lifetime cutoff for welfare recipients, the Bush Administration, Congress, and some states now lavish money on untested and unproven fatherhood and marriage promotion experiments. This redirection of benefits intended for lowincome families and those unable to meet their own needs is the equivalent of taking food from the table of the hungry. Policies known to alleviate poverty – subsidized housing, health care, child care, and the provision of meaningful educational and job training opportunities – are not being vigorously promoted under the present Administration.

Government funding for marriage promotion projects exceeds $100 million annually.

Executive Branch departments, including HHS and the Justice Department, make marriage promotion grants. State governments also fund a number of marriage promotion programs – some paid for with federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) block grants and some funded by the states themselves. Finally, Congress has allocated substantial resources for marriage promotion programs. The multiplicity of funding sources and the commingling of federal faith-based and marriage promotion initiatives makes it difficult to establish exactly how much state and federal money goes to support marriage promotion programs. We do know the following:

  • The 2005 Deficit Reduction Act allocated $100 million annually for marriage promotion programs and $50 million for fatherhood programs for fiscal years 2006–2010, or a total of $750 million;
  • The Administration’s Charitable Choice Fund, which in 2004 had a budget of $2 billion, has made grants in furtherance of marriage promotion;
  • Some of the $30 million, HHS-administered Compassion Capital Fund underwrites marriage promotion projects;
  • HHS’ Healthy Marriage Initiative has made grants both before and since passage of the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act; and
  • State funds, as well as federal TANF funds, are directed to state marriage programs.

Government-funded marriage promotion and fatherhood programs are varied and numerous.

Marriage promotion programs developed by the Bush Administration, with the assistance of The Heritage Foundation and other rightist think tanks, are now being implemented across the country, including:

  • Public advertising campaigns and high school programs on the value of marriage;
  • Marriage education for nonmarried pregnant women and nonmarried expectant fathers;
  • Premarital education and marriage skills training for engaged couples and for couples or individuals interested in marriage;
  • Marriage enhancement and marriage skills training programs for married couples;
  • Divorce reduction programs that teach relationship skills;
  • Marriage mentoring programs which use married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk communities; and
  • Programs to reduce the disincentives to marriage in means-tested aid programs, if offered in conjunction with any activity described above.

Government marriage promotion initiatives are intertwined with the dramatic erosion of Church/State separation under the Bush Administration’s faith-based initiatives.

An increase in federal funding for marriage promotion has corresponded with the Bush Administration’s funding for faith-based initiatives. A line item in the 2002 federal budget created the HHSadministered $30 million “Compassion Capital Fund” to channel federal money to faith-based groups at the local level. By 2006, the Administration was disbursing $2.1 billion to various faith-based organizations and programs.

Although the federal government has long funded religious charities, it previously stipulated that they receive the money through a secular arm and adhere to strict rules for separation of church and state, including bans on religiously-based discrimi- nation in hiring and worship in programs funded. The Bush Administration has resisted these restrictions and, failing to win Congressional approval, implemented its “Charitable Choice” initiative by administrative fiat. The Administration is currently facing lawsuits, which charge that some faith-based organizations supported by this Fund are illegally introducing the Bible into government-funded programs.

The arguments for government marriage promotion programs often reflect racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes, and the programs themselves disproportionately target communities of color – especially African Americans.

The Right has been able to mobilize the racial resentment of large numbers of White voters by stereotyping welfare recipients as African-American and demonizing them as women of loose sexual morals who are prone to defraud government agencies. Avoiding explicit statements about the inferiority of people of color, the Right instead developed an analysis of virtue and achievement as “colorblind” – adhering to individuals regardless of race. The Right refuses to acknowledge systemic racism and gender discrimination and characterizes poverty or exclusion as the fault of the individual.

Because many families in low-income communities of color do not conform to the model heterosexual, nuclear family configuration, conservative marriage and fatherhood promoters view such communities as their most challenging project. HHS’ Healthy Families Initiative administers special initiatives for African-American, Hispanic, and Native American communities that promote the nuclear family model and emphasize the father as the principal determinant of the success of both children and the family. Thus, the State is constructing marriage as the only acceptable means of family formation.

Government marriage promotion efforts emerged from and reinforce the work of rightist fatherhood groups and Christian Right organizations.

Central to the Right’s identity is its crusade to restore the heterosexual nuclear family as the only approved social unit worthy of the name “family.” By 2000 and the arrival of the George W. Bush Administration, the Right was able to mount strong campaigns, carried out by the movement’s infrastructure, to bring that ideological commitment to bear on public policy. Key examples of such campaigns include:

  • The Southern Baptist Convention’s Resolution on Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry;
  • The Promise Keepers movement, with its massive revival rallies emphasizing the importance of men assuming leadership within their marriages and families;
  • The Christian Coalition’s Contract with the American Family, which anticipated the Bush Administration’s Charitable Choice initiative;
  • Covenant marriage, a voluntary option that makes divorce nearly impossible; and
  • Opposition to same-sex marriage, as with passage of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (1996). As of 2006, 40 states had enacted laws denying recognition of same-sex marriage.

While the momentum for conservative marriage promotion has come from the Right, liberals and centrists have not vigorously opposed it and sometimes have supported it.

An overlooked element of the punitive 1996 welfare reform legislation signed by President Bill Clinton was its emphasis on marriage as a means to lift recipients out of poverty. The bill opened the door to the use of TANF money to promote “healthy marriage.”

As liberals and centrists became a minority voice in 2000, and their support for existing welfare programs weakened, the public increasingly supported a stereotype of welfare recipients as people undeserving of help and incapable of benefiting from it. A strong antipoverty Democratic platform and a wellfunded and highly active welfare rights movement will be required to reverse the damage done by “welfare reform.”

Marriage and fatherhood promotion also have liberal, and even progressive, variants and proponents.

Progressive fatherhood and marriage organizations of color are less attached to the traditional nuclear family model than are conservative fatherhood organizations. Such organizations encourage fathers, whether married or not, to become more involved in their children’s lives, both emotionally and financially, and to develop a better relationship with a child’s mother.

A small movement of profeminist fatherhood organizations works on issues such as: the problems that male supremacy causes within the family; how the politics of masculinity often appears to condone violence in U.S. culture; and their own privilege as men.


The measure of a social movement’s lasting success is the extent to which its ideology and policy proposals become dominant in the country, and eventually become law. When George W. Bush assumed the Presidency in 2000, the contemporary Political Right for the first time had control of both the Executive Branch and Congress, creating an opportunity for it, as a movement, to reap the full benefits of success and power. Primary among these benefits has been implementation of the programs and policies that reflect the movement’s ideology.

Marriage is a boon to some people and a nightmare for others. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of ever-accelerating modernity and the changes for better and worse that it brings, the Right would have government revive television’s “Ozzie and Harriet” version of the 1950s heterosexual nuclear family. Although government could play a constructive role in providing support services for low-income women and men, it will not do so if the programs are driven by hidden ideological and/or religious agendas rather than a commitment to safety, self-empowerment, and financial security.

It is up to the public and policy makers to take a stand against ideologically-driven programs and to demand implementation of proven methods of addressing poverty, remembering that the social and economic harm of the Right’s programs are visited on the most vulnerable women and their families.

Policy Recommendations:

1. A return to policies known to alleviate poverty – subsidized housing, health care, child care, and the provision of educational and job training opportunities, provided without resentment, in a supportive environment, and with federal money;

2. Federal support for: groups fighting poverty; groups advocating for the rights of welfare recipients; and groups providing services to low-income people without racial, religious, sexual preference, or gender discrimination;

3. Protecting women from violence (now acknowledged in current marriage promotion policies) should be at the center of all government and private antipoverty programs;

4. The elimination of the five-years-in-a-lifetime limit on welfare benefits;

5. The elimination of the “child exclusion provision” or “family cap,” and the “illegitimacy bonus,” changes that would defend the right of low-income women to bear and raise children;

6. Comprehensive federally-funded jobs, housing, and health care programs that address the needs of those low-income families that fall “between the cracks” of the current, punitive Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) guidelines;

7. The reversal of exclusionary provisions that deny social services to documented and undocumented immigrants;

8. Objective social science research to examine the social and economic consequences of the expenditure of federal money to promote marriage among low-income women and men; and

9. A federally-funded public education effort to counteract the last twenty-five years of ideologically driven demonization of low-income people, especially welfare recipients, with special emphasis on institutional and systemic causes of poverty.

Note: The second half of this Marriage Promotion Report Series is the forthcoming: Marriage as a Cure for Poverty? Social Science Through a “Family Values” Lens (Somerville, MA and Oakland, CA: Political Research Associates and Women of Color Resource Center: 2008). It will examine conservative marriage promoters’ questionable attempts to find support for their policy recommendations in social science literature.

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