Government handing money to states to promote marriage

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is giving communities in Michigan and Idaho money for a new idea: using the child-support system to promote marriage among low-income families.

The program aims to provide counseling and other support services to parents who are interested in marrying each other. It also is targeted at preventing divorce among those who are already married, and at improving parenting skills of both married and unmarried couples.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said yesterday that $990,000 would be given to a program in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area, and $544,400 to Nampa, Idaho. Coalitions in both communities include government as well as civic and religious groups.

A larger Bush initiative, $300 million a year, also is designed to promote marriage through the welfare system, but it is pending in Congress.

While welfare law already gives states power to spend money to promote marriage, few have done so. That's because many people are uncomfortable with the notion of government involvement in people's personal lives, there is little evidence about what might work, and states generally were focused on implementing new work requirements.

The grants also are controversial because they funnel the funding through the child-support system, a program that critics say was not designed to promote marriage.

HHS created the new program by encouraging states to apply for waivers, which allow them to write new, creative rules in running their child-support programs.

Federal funding to help states run child support is not capped, with Washington matching every dollar spent by the states. In this case, HHS is encouraging states to spend more and then promising to match it, meaning more total money will be spent.

To quell criticism that the marriage program would take money away from other child-support activities, state portions of the funding are being paid for with private dollars, said Wade Horn, an assistant secretary at HHS.

Horn said the idea is to "work with couples who say they are interested in getting married (and) provide them with access to services to better prepare them for marriage."

He said that might include talking to unmarried parents at the time their baby is born about marriage and offering them premarital counseling.

"One of the difficulties for some couples that are contemplating marriages, particularly low-income couples, is they may not be aware of services that may be available to them," Horn said.

Not everyone is enthusiastic. When HHS awarded similar grants through the child-support program this year, Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., wrote HHS a letter protesting that the projects were not fulfilling the lawful purposes of the child-support system.

"Promoting marriage is not one of the purposes of this enforcement- and collection-oriented program," wrote Baucus, the top Democrat on the Finance Committee. "The use of child-support funds to promote healthy marriage appears to disregard the very clear instructions Congress has set out on how designated funding streams may be used."