Welfare Weddings

MARRYING for money rather than love has always been a risky undertaking. Yet that is what Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin would have teenage parents do as part of a proposed welfare experiment in his state. The controversial plan would reward teenage mothers who marry and penalize those who remain single. Welfare recipients in Wisconsin currently receive $440 a month for one child and $80 a month for each additional child. The new plan would cap payments to unwed mothers at $440 a month, no matter how many children they have. By contrast, married couples with children would receive another $80 a month for each additional child. Parents would also be allowed to earn up to $14,500 without decreasing their welfare benefits. In addition, recipients would be required to finish high school or receive job training.

The proposal requires federal approval from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The governor has explained his rationale for the program by saying, ``I want to give people the elevator of opportunity and get away from the locked-in generations of welfare dependency.''

That is a laudable motive. Welfare hardly represents an ``elevator of opportunity'' for most recipients. Yet tying welfare checks to wedding rings is no guarantee of domestic stability or upward mobility for young couples and their children. So-called shotgun weddings have traditionally had a high rate of failure, with haste and immaturity often conspiring against long-term marital success. Instead of fostering family values, saying ``I do'' for an extra $80 a month - $960 a year - could make a mockery of marriage.

At a time when one-fourth of all babies in the United States, and more than half of all black babies, are born to unmarried women, the need for solutions is urgent. But those solutions are complex. Teenagers need information about birth control. They need counseling. They also need education and job opportunities to give them alternatives to early childbearing.

This is not the first time Governor Thompson has made headlines over welfare reform. Three years ago he instituted a program called Learnfare that withholds money from parents' welfare checks if teenagers have three or more unexcused absences from school in one month. According to studies, the results of Learnfare are inconclusive.

Governor Thompson deserves credit for his efforts to discourage long-term welfare dependency and encourage parental responsibility. But public debate over his current proposal should reaffirm that marriage is the most private of private enterprises.

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