WASHINGTON — The traditional American family - mom, dad, and a couple of kids - is declining, census data shows. But here in Washington, the political momentum to counter that trend - by using government to promote families, marriage, and fatherhood - is suddenly growing.
Married couples with children make up less than a quarter of all households. To some conservatives, this signals a further fraying of the social fabric. So they're leading an effort to fund everything from high-school classes on marriage to $5,000 bonuses for women at risk of having out-of-wedlock births to encourage them to marry - and stay married.
While critics say there's no evidence such "social engineering" works, both the White House and some Democrats are pushing initiatives that represent a new level of federal involvement in helping the American family. In a controversial move, President Bush is budgeting $315 million over five years for programs to bolster fatherhood and marriage. The initiatives are a precursor to the 2002 reauthorization of the welfare-reform law, when a major recalibration toward fatherhood and marriage programs is expected.
Even supporters concede, however, there's little evidence these programs will change what goes on in homes. And critics abound: Libertarians decry it as an invasion of the most-intimate of human relationships; womens' groups warn of an Ozzie-and-Harriet model being imposed on 21st century families.
But backers say this is the only way to really tackle America's social ills. "All societies recognize that raising children requires more than one person," says Robert Rector of the conservative Heritage Foundation here. "But the entire welfare state is a subsidy system for single-parent families - and it discriminates against two-parent families."
He says 90 percent of the money targeted at low-income children and families, such as food stamps and welfare checks, goes to single-parent households. This, even though a child born outside marriage is seven times more likely to live in poverty than one whose parents are married.
But it's not just conservatives who are focusing on the family. Moderate Democrats are pushing fatherhood programs, too. Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh, head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, has introduced a bill to give $380 million to states for fatherhood initiatives. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut is a co-sponsor. A similar bill in the House has the endorsement of the congressional Black Caucus.
Fatherhood programs typically stress one or more basic elements: encouraging dads to spend time with their kids, pushing them to pay child support, helping them find better jobs so they can support their progeny.
Research, so far, is scanty on the results. The most extensive study to date is of a program called Parents' Fair Share, which operated in seven cities and included all three elements.
The program made a "modest" difference among the fathers who were least involved in their kids' lives - and those who were least able to hold steady jobs, says Gordon Berlin of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York, which conducted the study.
Still, he says, "anyone who has sat through fatherhood-involvement programs knows something important is going on - and is impressed that these dads want to be there for their kids."
Indeed, while "fatherhood" promotion is quite popular, bolstering marriage is harder to sell. States, though, are pushing ahead anyway.
Florida, for instance, offers couples a $32.50 discount on their $88.50 marriage license if they agree to a four-hour pre-marital counseling session. Under the "look before you leap" rule, couples who don't get counseling must have a three-day cooling off period before tying the knot. Also, high schoolers get life-skills classes that include marriage tips.
Supporters laud these kinds of initiatives. Ted Horn, who Mr. Bush has nominated to be head of family support at the Health and Human Services Department, wrote recently that public policy - including tax policy - "needs to show it values marriage by rewarding those who choose it." He advocates requiring states to have a plan to boost two-parent households. Another option is turning the "marriage penalty" tax into a "marriage bonus."
But not all conservatives agree with this approach. Advocates of less government see this as too activist. "We're talking about the most intimate of human relations - and about the government coming in with a sledgehammer to try to fix it," says Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute here. He also calls the approach "hypocritical" because it shows that Republicans are saying, "Now that we control the power of government we should use it for our purposes" - for social engineering of the conservative kind.
Other groups - from women to gays to single people - resist the emphasis on marriage because they say it ignores the many other forms of family life that exist across the nation and promotes a patriarchal tradition.
Furthermore, they say, in cases of domestic tension or abuse, marriage may not be a good answer. "Some people assume single parenthood is always bad," says MDRC's Mr. Berlin. "But the evidence is hardly clear."
Yet a focus on marriage may also help women think through who they're hanging out with, says Heritage's Mr. Rector. "If the guy you're co-habiting with right now is no good, maybe you need to steer away from him," he says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor