West Virginia Gives $100 Welfare Marriage Bonus
By Dan LeRoy, WEnews correspondent
West Virginia is the only state offering a cash marriage incentive
getting welfare benefits: $100 a month to 1,633 couples. Advocates
working, experts say the jury is out, and critics say it may keep
in abusive homes.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOMENSENEWS)--Politicians in every state want
encourage parents on welfare to get married, but here in West
one of the poorest states, they have literally put their money
Since federal welfare overhaul was adopted by state lawmakers in
West Virginia has offered a monthly cash incentive to married
receive welfare checks. It's the only state in the country to offer
an inducement to matrimony, according to the National
West Virginia's $1.2 million annual program aims to promote
and stable, two-parent families.
Advocates say the program appears to be successful, but national
experts say it's too soon to tell whether any of the handful of
marriage incentive programs, including West Virginia's cash
a success. Women's advocates say cash incentives may coerce and
low-income women into remaining in abusive relationships.
"I've never heard of any public opposition to, or criticism of,
program," says Rita Dobrich, program manager for the state's Office
Family Support. "I think most people are like one legislator I
when the marriage incentive was being discussed. He just said,
'Give it to
But does the carrot of an extra $100 each month really convince
recipients to tie the knot? And if it does, could the lure of the
trapping women and children in potentially abusive
Sue Julian, a team leader with the West Virginia Coalition
Domestic Violence, says she's concerned the incentive acts as
"additional barrier" to women struggling to leave bad
Advocates Say Incentives Can Trap Women in Violent Marriages
"When financial stress and domestic violence coexist in the
relationship, an additional $100 per month can easily be used
leverage by batterers to keep women living in poverty committed to
marriage," Julian says. "Safety and lethality issues are at
How effective is a cash marriage bonus? That's hard to say,
since West Virginia politicians didn't demand much statistical
ensure it was working. Even figures for the most basic yardstick
success--how many couples have been receiving the incentive since
began in 1996--are not available.
"We just weren't tracking it at the beginning," Dobrich says.
The only numbers available start in January 2001, when 1,615
were receiving the marriage incentive. That number reached
couples in April, and fell back to 1,633 in June. That's a small
of the 14,000 welfare cases in West Virginia, most of them headed
single mothers, who make up 70 percent to 80 percent of all
recipients in the state. With so little knowledge available, it is
to know whether the couples would marry regardless of the
incentive, or if
the incentive is a factor in the marriage continuing.
To get the $100 each month, the recipient couple must be married,
the same household and both must be named on the monthly
check. If they divorce, or even separate, the bonus stops.
State Gives $100 Bonus, but No Marriage Education, Counseling
But while the state checks its caseloads each month to see who is
married and who isn't, the incentive program doesn't come with the
of education and counseling offered by the few other states with
incentive programs. Only Oklahoma and Arizona have actual
while Maryland and a couple of other states appear to be
incentive programs, according to the governors association.
Oklahoma's Marriage Initiative, started by Gov. Frank Keating,
spending $10 million to provide marriage education for couples
welfare, in an effort to cut the state's divorce rate by one-third
Meanwhile, Arizona spends more than a million dollars annually to
marriage skills courses to welfare recipients, most of them single
and a small percentage of couples. It has produced a "healthy
handbook" and created a state Commission on Marriage and
Even when marriage education and counseling are offered to
receiving benefits, the jury is still out on the incentive
The uncertainty over what's working and what isn't may be reflected
governors association's recent request to Congress and the
Administration. At their annual meeting this past weekend in
R.I., governors urged no reductions in funding or flexibility for
welfare programs. Susan Golanka, a welfare expert with the
Governors Association, says it's far too early to say that any
incentive programs are a success.
"A lot of these incentives are very new, and there's been no
evaluation yet," Golanka said in an interview. "We just don't know
whether they work."
No Major Objections to Cash Bonus When West Virginia Passed Law
When West Virginia Works, the state's version of the work-driven
welfare law, was enacted in 1996, marriage incentive passed
serious debate. In fact, no one recalls who proposed offering cash
married welfare recipients.
What they do remember is that there was plenty of federal welfare
available--$550 million over five years--and it had to be spent, or
"That was the best way to spend that money, to give it to the
could use it the most," says Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse,
conservative Republican. "It's something that can help out in
children and in helping create two-income families."
So lawmakers approved a 10 percent bonus in cash assistance for
couples receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF,
Then, in the election year of 2000, things changed.
The state Department of Health and Human Resources asked
to increase the marriage incentive to a flat $100 a month. Dobrich,
the state Office of Family Support, says one of the major reasons
that the average welfare case receives less than $300 a month and a
percent marriage bonus "didn't seem like much of an incentive."
round numbers simplified paperwork. That also meant that a
parent with two children would receive substantially less than a
couple with one child, although they would all be families of
Federal Welfare Funds Had to Be Spent or Lost: Ergo, $100 Bonus
But a major political factor was the drive to spend unspent federal
funds earmarked for the states.
As the state's five-year welfare overhaul plan drew to a close,
officials became concerned about the amount of unspent federal
dollars designated for West Virginia. When Democratic Congressman
Wise successfully battled last fall to unseat Republican Cecil
the governor's race, unspent federal funds became a campaign
Sprouse, the senate minority leader, remembers it simply: "They
hammering the governor over the head." The marriage incentive
to $100 was approved, along with a variety of other programs
spend down federal welfare funds.
But the welfare spending spree has come back to haunt state
Spending for West Virginia Works is projected to be $209 million
the current budget year--almost double the state's annual allotment
the federal government. And next year's budget looks even
State Now Seeks to Cut Welfare Spending; Bonus May Be a Target
Secretary Paul Nussbaum of the Department of Health and Human
Resources has asked Gov. Wise to appoint a "crisis panel" to help
welfare spending. Given the scant statistical evidence that it's
might the marriage incentive program get the ax?
Perhaps not. State lawmakers would have to vote to remove the
since it's written into state law. But Sprouse, for one, says he'd
to consider it. Although he likes the idea of the marriage
troubled by the lack of hard numbers to demonstrate
"We need to take a look at these incentives, every single one of
Sprouse says. "And if they're not working, we need to get rid of
Though the marriage incentive hasn't created a public outcry, there
skeptics both inside and outside the state.
"I think it's quite a cause for concern," says Stephanie Coontz,
of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in
and the national co-chair of the Council on American Families.
Cash Bonus May Co-opt Vulnerable Women With Scant Resources
"You're targeting women who have the least resources to escape a
relationship. They're so vulnerable, so desperate, and it may be
tempting, if you offer them $100, to say 'Boy, we really need the
even if the guy is abusive."
Coontz, the author of several books, including "The Way We Never
American Families and the Nostalgia Trap," also points out that
suffer in households where there is high conflict.
"Anything we do that increases conflict is bad for these kids," she
an interview. "On average, we know that people who are married
better, but I don't think offering cash is the way to help."
Dr. Waldo Johnson of the University of Chicago's School of Social
Administration agrees, saying government starts down the
"slippery slope" when it rewards "one type of commitment over
Johnson was an investigator for the national Fragile Families and
Well-Being Study, which looked at children raised by unmarried
He notes that the marriage incentive goal of improving children's
adding a second income to their household doesn't always pan
"Many poor men are equally as poor as these unwed mothers, and
often have low skills and education that make it difficult for them
work or advance," Johnson said in an interview.
Critics: $100 a Month Doesn't Offset Emotional, Physical Stress
But while they fear the effects of trying to promote marriages with
both Johnson and Coontz also question whether West Virginia's bait
"The $100 could be the difference between somebody eating at the
of the month. I don't mean to pooh-pooh it," Johnson says. "But for
of people, is that enough to offset the emotional or even physical
of being in a bad relationship? I'm not certain."
Coontz says she'd rather see states "get rid of all disincentives"
marriage, through reworking tax laws and welfare restrictions that
single-parent households. In an about-face, Wade Horn, President
nominee for assistant secretary of the federal Office of Family
said he no longer favored measures that put unmarried women
others at a disadvantage.
Johnson expects more states will look at West Virginia's
incentive program after the second round of federal welfare
reauthorization next year. He wonders if lawmakers will also
growth of nontraditional families.
"What do we do to help those for whom marriage no longer seems to
an option?" asks Johnson. "That becomes the real question."
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