Thursday, May 05, 2005

Marriage As Economic Development???

Last week Michael Leavitt, U. S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, visited Central Dallas Ministries' Transition Resource Action Center (TRAC)--our program area that works with youth in Dallas who "age out" of the foster care system annually. We've established working relationships with over 600 of these special young people in the last year.

Leavitt chose our center as the location for a press conference of sorts to announce the next round of funding for the Compassion Capital Fund.

Next year Health and Human Services in cooperation with the White House Office for Faith-based and Community Initiatives will offer capacity building grants totaling over $31 million to organizations like ours. Last year CDM received a small sub-grant award to improve our website and to strengthen our organizational infrastructure. Helpful, but not revolutionary by any means.

Mr. Leavitt seemed to be a really nice guy. He was moved by the stories and the progress of the youth he met at the center.

Still, as he spoke, I wondered just how much a person from Utah (actually, the former governor) can understand about urban America. I wondered how he was selected as the head of one of the most important government agencies to poor, urban people--1 out of every 4 federal dollars spent comes from his shop.

Seemed strange to me.

Among other things the Secretary informed us that next year the President is asking Congress for an additional $100 million for efforts with faith-based organizations. What he failed to fully explain is the fact that much of the new funding will be devoted to programs to encourage and strengthen marriages in America.

Most of this work will be done by churches and other faith-based organizations.

Think about that for a moment.

What's new here? Churches have always taught their members about marriage and the importance of family life. Right?

One thing that is new is the fact that the government will be paying churches and faith groups to do what they have always done for free--or almost free.

I guess the assumption is that churches will be able to attract lots of new people with programs so that marriages can be made stronger, especially in low-income neighborhoods.

Is this a good use of tax dollars?

What church would turn away people from the community who wanted to attend a class or seminar on marriage? Seems to me that good churches will offer this service whether you pay them to or not.

Another seldom appreciated reality is the fact that churches typically just don't reach poor people with their programs. No matter what the location of the neighborhood, but especially in low-income communities, the poor just don't come to church. So, where will these instructional sessions be staged to actually reach low-income folks who we assume will have the time to devote to improving their marriages?

As I am thinking about the city I know best, I begin to wonder if people are poor because they don't know enough about marriage? Or, are people who are poor often in troubled relationships--marriages and parenting--because they are financially swamped?

My experience tells me it is the latter.

Think about it.

Let's say that I am a working father with a wife and two children.

Together our annual gross wages are under $30,000. That is what a couple would earn before taxes with one minimum wage job and one job paying just under twice the minimum wage.

We pay right at 35% of our income for housing. Transportation, clothing, food, health costs, and education expenses gobble up what's left.

In short, we live on the edge all of the time.

What would be most effective at strengthening our marriage and family life?

Twelve sessions at a church on how to be a better husband or wife, complete with a notebook, outside reading and take-home, relationship-building assignments?

Or, the opportunity to improve our employment skills and increase our earning power?

Would it be a marriage enrichment weekend three times a year?

Or, would it be better to have an opportunity to enroll in community college in special evening and weekend classes that allowed me to keep my day job while working on technology certification that would increase my take home pay by 30-40% over the next three years?

Is what I really need a series of taped sermons on fatherhood and marriage?

Or, would it be better if Congress decided to restore funding for the Earned Income Credit program that rewards me for work, provides me a tax return and encourages me to get more education, pay off some debt or move to a better housing situation?

The trend today in the United States is to champion what upper middle class church folks believe would solve all the problems of the poor and of the cities.

People in the day-to-day thick of life at or near the bottom know and understand a completely different reality.

Politicians would do well to listen to the experts in this case.


owldog said...

Larry did you share your ideas with John Leavitt? Your idea does make sense and it would be money well spent.

Larry James said...

Unfortunately, the security around Secretary Leavitt was so tight I had no opportunity to speak with him about his comments nor my reaction to them. Of course, the people who can change the policy decisions are in Congress. Now is not a time when ideas against the current grain work very well.

Jeremy Gregg said...

Random tangent to provide some perspective:

The Republicans have tried to take credit for the expansion of government support to faith-based initiatives. Although it is true that Bush's first executive order as president created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, this action was merely an expansion on the "Charitable Choice" provision, passed as part of President Clinton's 1996 welfare reform bill. This action allowed religious groups to receive government funding for social services, and was the basis for Bush's later actions.