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A Marriage of Family and Policy 

Bush Gives Government A Leading Social Role

By Dana Milbank 

Washington Post Staff 

Writer Sunday, April 15, 2001; Page A01

First in a series of occasional articles

To those watching President Bush press his tax cut and reverse environmental and workplace regulations, it seems that he is a foe of big government. But when it comes to social policy, the Republican president shares with liberal predecessors a belief that government can and should play a large role in molding the private behavior of the citizenry. 

The Bush administration is devising proposals to strengthen American families, using grants to promote "responsible fatherhood," marriage counseling to prevent divorce, character education for children and tax credits to promote two-parent homes and adoption.

"In essence, what we're seeing is the triumph of big government conservatism," said the Hudson Institute's Marshall Wittman, a former Christian Coalition official. "Everyone assumed devolution" -- sending power to the states -- "meant the absence of a government role. In fact, it means a continued presence." 

Bush's approach to social problems helps to explain the competing and sometimes contradictory messages emerging from his administration: His aims, like his appointments, are philosophically conservative, but he also believes in a muscular government that can rebuild families.

The aggressive approach to family policy is part of a broader belief among influential Bush advisers that the government can be used to restore the family, community and civil society, and it is one of a series of ideas The Washington Post will explore in an effort to explain the philosophical moorings of the new administration. 

Bush officials say the family initiatives are largely a conservative response to Great Society programs, such as welfare, which they believe had the effect of encouraging out-of-wedlock births and increasing social ills. They cite a range of troubling statistics: 25 million children don't live with their fathers; 1.5 million have a parent in prison; half a million are in foster care; 1 million babies a year are born to unwed mothers; one of six families with children earns $17,000 a year or less.

"We've tried to address so many complex problems that go to social behavior, drug abuse, crime," said John Bridgeland, director of the president's Domestic Policy Council. "What we're discovering is if we can support the family in different ways, that's what ought to be done. The data is overwhelming that when the family breaks down, drug abuse, poverty, dependency, crime, the litany of all social problems government gets called on to address, are magnified a hundredfold." 

The notion of fatherlessness as a cause of child poverty and other ills is not new -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan talked about it decades ago -- and the relationship is well documented. As a result, the Bush initiatives are not "the old family values debate reemerging," said Wade Horn, who heads the National Fatherhood Initiative and has been tapped to be the assistant secretary of health and human services for family support. "It's a different kind of debate -- what empirical literature tells us, not just what our personal faith tells us," Horn said.

The new debate is a way of reframing -- and perhaps defusing -- the culture wars between right and left since the 1960s. There is now more agreement about the importance of the family. "There seems to be some discontent about the broader culture," Horn said. "We've had for essentially 18 or 19 years an extraordinary economy, people have more money than ever, income is up, child poverty is down, and yet there is an unease as to where we are." 

Horn, though not yet speaking for Bush, views the administration's effort as four-pronged: strengthening fatherhood, strengthening marriage, strengthening community organizations that help families, and seeking a role for religious organizations in building communities. He sees a precedent in the women's movement. The women's movement brought concrete changes such as domestic violence shelters, he said. "But the women's movement at its core was about changing the idea of what a woman's role is in society." Likewise, "the core of the fatherhood movement is to change the idea we have as a culture."

Bush's plans to promote marriage and fatherhood as antidotes to social ills have drawn criticism from liberal women's groups. "They're suggesting that the way for women to get out of poverty is to get a husband, and we oppose that notion," said Loretta Kane, a vice president of the National Organization for Women. 

But the administration's plans are likely to generate support from Democrats; during the presidential campaign, Al Gore also supported a fatherhood initiative. University of Maryland Professor William A. Galston, formerly a policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, views the Bush strategy as a continuation of Clinton's.

"Clinton made huge advances in welfare dependency, crime, teen pregnancy," he said. "On the broader problem of family stability, it's fair to say we did not make all that much progress." 

While the child tax credit increase and marriage penalty reduction are already under consideration in Congress, hearings on other components of the fatherhood and marriage initiatives should begin in May, according to Rep. Wally Herger (R-Calif.), who chairs the Ways and Means subcommittee reviewing the legislation. "There appears to be a tremendous amount of support for this," he said. "We should do everything we can to ensure that children have two parents in the home."

Specifically, Bush has pledged $200 million in grants over five years to community and religious groups promoting fatherhood, marriage education and conflict resolution. Bush's budget proposal has $3 million for "skill-building" for fathers. The administration also wants to expand existing social-service programs such as Head Start and Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, to target fathers as much as mothers. The president also seeks to help states create paternity registries, continuing Clinton's efforts to enforce child-support laws. 

To sustain marriages, Bush would encourage states to use surplus welfare funds for premarital services and counseling. Bush's proposal aims to double the child tax credit and reduce the marriage penalty in the tax code, and some wonder if a marriage bonus could be created. "We're not neutral about homeownership; same thing for charitable giving," Horn said. "Why then is it so crazy to think it might be a good idea to have mild incentives for marriage?"

NOW, which opposes Horn's nomination, argues against a marriage bonus. "When you've got a guy saying we should give preferential treatment to marriage, that tells me there's a vein of sexism running through his politics," Kane said. 

To anchor families, Bush wants to give $1 billion over five years to states to help keep children with their parents or return them from foster care. He would also require criminal background checks for foster and adoptive parents. Both are part of an effort to shift child welfare programs toward prevention. Bush also seeks $1 billion over five years to increase the adoption tax credit to $7,500 from $5,000, while encouraging the building of "second-chance" maternity group homes for unwed mothers.

For children, the president wants to triple character education that promotes morals and values in schools, while encouraging community and religious after-school programs. His education package requires states to measure improvements in school safety, and he seeks a Teacher Protection Act to allow teachers to enforce discipline with less worry about frivolous lawsuits. He proposes a "parent drug corps" to train parents to fight drug use and proposes community and religious programs to help in prisoner rehabilitation and to aid the children of prisoners. 

Family members would act as sponsors for addicts under another Bush program, providing an alternative to criminal punishment. For children who become too old for foster care, the administration proposes $300 million over five years for college or vocational training.

Most of these programs disappoint conservatives who favor limited government. "They are mostly unconstitutional, and mostly will be ineffective," said David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute. "There's no room in the Constitution for a federal fatherhood initiative or a federal marriage initiative."

Boaz said he's encouraged that the programs, like many of Clinton's, are modest in scope. But he disapproved of any attempt to "deal with problems created by previous government policies."

"The second worst thing government does is try to fix the problems it created," he said.

Bush shares that sentiment when it comes to some policies, such as his proposed tax cut. "I don't think the U.S. Congress ought to be able to pick and choose the winners in society," he often says. But in the area of family policy and other social policies, the Bush administration is making clear there is a significant role for government in shaping behavior.

Wittman said the fatherhood and marriage initiatives, combined with new federal funds for education not long after Republicans aimed to abolish the Education Department, amount to "the death of libertarianism." Even the controversy over Bush's tax cut, he argued, is really a debate between "19 and 20 percent of GDP going to government." The activist policies, Wittman said, are "a major turning point from what Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater talked about."

  2001 The Washington Post Company

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