I wuz wrong: Kansas and TANF

In an earlier post, I complained that the Kansas Healthy Marriage Institute seemed unduly interested in diverting TANF money away from proven anti-poverty programs and towards experimental marriage initiatives.

As Sara Butler at the Family Scholars Blog points out, I was utterly wrong. Why? Because I didn’t realize that the $200 million the KHMI was talking about is money earmarked by the Feds for marriage initiatives; the only way Kansas can see any of that money is by spending it on marriage initiatives.

So no money is being diverted, except on a federal level, where $200 million is really not all that much money (for comparison’s sake, the 2003 TANF budget is around $20 billion). My apologies for my error, and thanks to Sara for straightening me out.

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That said, do I think spending $200 million on “marriage initiatives” is wrong? Not really. The marriage movement folks could be right to say that a little free marriage counseling will substantially improve people’s lives, and it’s worth spending some money to find out.

On the other hand, I’m not as blasé about diverting TANF money as Sara is. $200 million doesn’t sound like a lot when you compare it the total TANF budget, as Sara did – but that comparison obscures what’s really being cut to pay for the marriage initiative.

$200 million is a lot of money compared to the $100 million TANF used to spend rewarding programs that reduce illegitimate births. That $100 million has been completely eliminated to pay for the marriage initiative. The other $100 million comes from cutting in half the budget for High Performance Bonuses – bonuses for states that show that they’ve got an especially effective welfare-to-work program, for instance, or a program successfully getting food stamps to working families.

So although I don’t have anything against spending money on marriage movement experiments, let’s not pretend that real services aren’t being cut. It would have been better to pay for the marriage initiative by increasing the total TANF budget, rather than by cutting incentives for states to provide other services.

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Budget matters aside, there are other reasons to object to the marriage initiative. The most important is the possibility that it will lead states to encourage abused women to stay married to their abusers. The marriage initiative’s supporters have insisted this won’t happen.

So far, I’m a fence-sitter on this issue; of course, any program that keeps women tied to abusers would be bad, but I’m not convinced that the marriage initiative – which seems to focus more on educational programs than on direct financial incentives to women to stay married – will have that impact.

While the marriage initiative wonks at Family Scholars are paying attention to “Alas,” I do have a question. How will the success or failure of states marriage initiative programs be measured? And will future funding be contingent on past success (however that’s measured)? Most of the marriage initiative materials online are long on happy platitudes but short on specifics.

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3 Responses to I wuz wrong: Kansas and TANF

  1. 1
    Dan J says:

    Marriage initiatives seem like a tremendous waste of taxpayer money to me. I think that part of the reason that the divorce rate is so high in this country is that there is too much pressure on young people (especially women) to get married, which leads to people making stupid choices. Staying the course after having made such a choice seems pretty unnecessary. Or I should say that seeing, as a matter of public policy, that people stay the course is unnecessary. What compelling interest does the state have in whether people are married or not, that would lead it to want to preserve extant marriages and encourage more? I’m asking because I really want to know.

    To clarify: I, like Amp, don’t see anything necessarily wrong with a marriage initiative (provided that the other services which help in a more concrete way remain intact)iff the state can make a case for why it’s important enough to spend taxpayer money on. There’s always a number of things in the queue for that money.

  2. 2
    ScottM says:

    I just want to praise your clear correction. It’s easy to slant the correction to shade the intent of the original; your clarification is straight forward.


  3. 3
    Jen says:

    I agree with ScottM. Thanks for not spinning.