WASHINGTON – Wade Horn, the nation's new welfare chief, believes a ring, a walk down the aisle and a promise to love, honor and cherish may be the key to moving families out of poverty.
Horn, an academic who says he relies on results, not theory, admits he has no evidence that government can do anything to persuade poor people to get married.
Still, he is using his new post at the Health and Human Services Department to amplify the voices of conservatives who believe marriage should be a bigger piece of welfare reform. He also is preaching the virtues of sexual abstinence, saying unmarried people should not be having sex.
"I think it's the healthiest choice, yes I do," said Horn, recently confirmed as assistant secretary for family support.
But Horn, whose agency is responsible for welfare, Head Start, child care, child abuse, foster care and adoption, is not a cookie-cutter conservative.
He says the success of welfare should be measured by the effect on children, not by the number of people who have left welfare. He volunteers that some people who have left welfare appear worse off than they were. He says the welfare system should find a way to help people move up the economic ladder by advancing to better jobs.
"I don't think we as a nation ought to be satisfied with simply moving people from welfare to the working poor," said Horn, who is returning for his second tour of administrative duty at HHS after six years leading the National Fatherhood Initiative, which he founded.
It iss Horn's views on marriage that have headlines. Research suggests children raised in two-parent families are better off than those who rely on just one. Traditionally, the welfare system discouraged marriage, because eligibility for benefits is calculated using both parents' income.
In 1997, Horn suggested reversing the incentive. He said married couples should get preferential treatment in public benefits with limited spots, such as housing and Head Start.
Women's groups complained that this could trap poor women in abusive marriages because they stood to lose their benefits if they lost their husbands. Some 90 groups opposed Horn's nomination to the HHS job.
In his Senate confirmation hearing, Horn renounced these views, and easily was confirmed.
"I've thoughtfully considered critics of that idea," he said in an interview. "I've become convinced over time that ... it is too easy to translate it into a discrimination issue against single moms.
"I am not in this at all to bash single moms," he added. "You know why? Because children are in single-mother households. If I were to kick single moms out of public housing or discriminate against single moms, kids would suffer. I have no interest in that."
The turnabout has persuaded some of his loudest critics to give him a chance. Leaders of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which led the opposition to his nomination, plan to meet with him next month. "He's at least willing to listen," said the group's president, Kathy Rodgers.
Horn is still unabashedly pro-marriage. The landmark 1996 welfare law must be renewed next year, and the Bush administration is formulating its position on how it should be changed, he said. But Horn has personally detailed a number of ways that Congress might prod states, which have done virtually nothing to promote marriage in their welfare programs.
Congress should make it clear that states are supposed to be encouraging marriage, not just two-parent families, he said in an article this summer. Also, he said, government should pay for premarital education classes for low-income people considering marriage.
Horn also supports financial incentives, such as West Virginia's $100 monthly bonus for welfare parents who are married. He is also open to more radical ideas; for example, identifying young women who are at risk of getting pregnant and promising them $5,000 if they have their first child after marriage.
He also takes a conservative line on sex education, supporting abstinence-only education, which bars talk of contraception.
"Heaven knows kids get contrary messages to abstinence every day. The idea that if parents emphasize abstinence to teen-agers that they will be completely oblivious to contrary messages that are coming from the popular culture, that's a ludicrous assumption," he said.
"Show me the 16-year-old who has never heard the word condom, or has no idea what it is or how to use one. But I can show you a lot of teen-agers who have never gotten the message that abstinence is the best choice."