Uncle Sam wants you to say "I do."

A controversial Bush administration nominee advocates using federal funds to ensure that wedding bells ring more often in poor neighborhoods — sparking a national debate on just how politics and marriage should mix.

Dr. Wade F. Horn is the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, the flagship institution of a nascent movement in the United States that encourages responsible fatherhood.  He has been selected by President Bush to serve as his administration's so-called "marriage czar" as an assistant secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Horn advocates using federal welfare money to promote two-parent households and strong marriages, and to crack down on deadbeat dads.

Though Horn is not commenting publicly during the Senate confirmation process, he has written and spoken extensively on the intersection of welfare and marriage over the years.

"Research consistently finds that communities with high marriage rates have fewer social pathologies, including less crime and less welfare dependency, than communities with low marriage rates," Horn wrote. "If marriage is good for communities, why should government be shy about promoting and strengthening it?"

Horn shares with Bush a belief that single-mother homes and absentee fathers are contributing to inner-city ills and perpetuating a tangle of pathologies, such as poverty and violence. They believe that without stable families, most social programs are of limited use, since homes without two parents are more likely to produce troubled children than intact families.

Ending Support Is Not Enough

Horn's nomination comes at a precarious time for many welfare recipients. Next year, many will hit the end of their five-year lifetime limit for receiving federal cash assistance.

With some single welfare mothers being forced off public assistance and into the workforce by 2002, many are worried about what will happen to their children when no one is at home.

"The whole thing with welfare reform is that there has been relentless emphasis on work, work, work," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and a longtime friend of Horn's. "The one thing we've told these young mothers is, 'Get a job.' Meanwhile, they have these little children."

The Bush administration and Horn believe some of the answers may reside in promoting marriage. "Welfare funds could — and should — be used to promote the formation and maintenance of two-parent families," Horn wrote.

Critics on the Left and the Right  

But such views have brought disdain upon Horn and the Bush administration from both libertarians on the right and liberals on the left.

"This is a truly silly idea, particularly from an administration that purports to be conservative," said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "The idea that the federal government can cajole or bribe people to behave according to any particular morality is nonsense."

Left-wing advocacy groups also say government should butt out.

"In Horn's ideal world, the government would punish poor kids who do not live with married parents, regardless of the reason," the National Organization for Women said in a scathing statement on Horn and the fatherhood movement. "Ultimately, the fascination with fatherhood will do little to help impoverished children."

Some social scientists are skeptical that federally-funded marriage programs will work — and believe the money could be better used for other things, like preventing teen pregnancy and improving the quality of child care.

"We should put more focus on working with young people before they've made decisions that are later hard to reverse," said Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. "I'm generally sympathetic to the goal, but I'm not sure we know how to achieve it yet and I'm not sure it's a federal, as opposed to a local or non-governmental, role."

Welfare as Adult Education

Those who have worked closely with Horn say he is a caring child-welfare expert who's cut out for the job, pointing to his prior experience in the administration of former President Bush in the Department of HHS. 

And they say that rather than forcing people to get hitched or cheating unmarried families out of benefits, Horn simply wants to use some federal welfare funds for voluntary marriage-education programs in communities.

Horn and his allies have applauded the federally-backed "Marriage Initiative" adopted by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating — who earmarked $10 million in federal welfare block grants to implement pro-marriage outreach services in his state.

"Right now, zero percent of federal funds go toward marriage education," said Blankenhorn. "The point here is to benefit the children. There are fathers of these young children out there who have responsibilities, and many are not fulfilling them."

Horn also wants an overhaul of the tax code to reward rather than penalize marriage by allowing greater amounts of welfare assistance to married couples.  What's more, Horn's defenders say that the current system is broken and badly in need of repair.

"It's a system that's been incredibly detrimental to the inner-city child," said Elayne Bennett, a Horn supporter and president of the teen-abstinence group the Best Friends Foundation. By helping shore up marriages and offering incentives to get and stay married, "Wade wants to be part of the solution," Bennett said.

Still, those like Sawhill believe that while some marriage initiatives might be useful, the government would be wiser to focus its energies on studying the issue more thoroughly first and implementing programs with proven track records — like those aimed at preventing unwanted births.

"The federal government is doing very little in the way of collecting data on marriage, much less evaluating what works in promoting marriage," Sawhill said. "I'd worry that (publicly funded pro-marriage efforts) would end up being a wasteful diversion."

No firm date has been set for Horn's confirmation hearings by the Senate Finance Committee.

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