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January 20, 2001
Column #1012

BUSH OFFERS HOPE TO MORALISTS

     George W. Bush had a 30 point margin among voters concerned about America's moral drift, while Gore won 2-1 among those who never attend church. 

     The moralists and the secularists are about equal in numbers. The Senate is divided 50-50 and the House, nearly so. Will the Bush term be years of stalemate or of progress in moving America to higher ethical standards?

     I forsee dramatic progress on many fronts that were not in the spotlight during the campaign. Consider the issues of rampant obscenity, soaring out-of-wedlock births and single parenthood, persistent poverty of children and sky high divorce rates. Many people believe these are immutable trends that government cannot impact.

     1. Obscenity: ''What is most clear about the Clinton Administration is that they did not enforce the laws against obscenity. The Adult Video Magazine promoted votes for Gore,'' says Dr. Jerry Kirk, Chairman of the Religious Alliance Against Pornography. ''Bush will enforce the laws on the books on both obscenity and child pornography. His appointment of John Ashcroft as Attorney General is evidence of that. In his third debate, Bush mentioned he believed (pornography) filters should be put in all the schools.''

     2. Illegitimacy: In the mid-1960's, only 7 percent of babies were born out of wedlock.  The ''War on Poverty'' fueled this pathology by treating single low-income mothers as victims of social injustice, who needed larger welfare checks, food stamps, subsidized housing and medical care. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation says a mother could ''earn'' this welfare package, worth $15,000 per year in current dollars with only two stipulations.

     ''She could not work, and she could not marry an employed man. It is difficult to imagine a more destructive system.'' It fueled the inexorable rise in out-of-wedlock births, to the point now that 33 percent of children are born to unwed mothers. Today about $200 billion a year is spent to reward non-marriage and illegitimacy.

     Traditionally, conservatives have fought to cut back funding of welfare programs, with little success. However, welfare was reformed into workfare. A person receiving what used to be called AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), had to find work. Since 1996, the Temporary Assistance To Needy Families (TANF) welfare rolls plunged in half, indeed by 90 percent in Wisconsin. Thus, behavioral change can be mandated by law.

     3. Poverty: Only 10 percent of children living with married parents are in poverty vs. 66 percent of children of single parents. Thus, the key to reducing poverty is to increase the percentage of couples who are married. 

     4. Marriage: Interestingly, the TANF welfare reform set goals to ''encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families,'' to prevent and reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births,'' and to reduce the poor's dependence on government. Obviously, higher marriage rates and lower divorce rates would accomplish all three goals. 

     However, all but two of the states ignored those goals, even though there is a huge $6.9 billion surplus of unspent TANF funds as a result of the plunge in welfare rolls. Both Arizona and Oklahoma will spend $1 million to create a pro-marriage media campaign to encourage people to get married and stay married..

     Oklahoma has set also aside 10 percent of its TANF surplus, $10 million, to undertake an ambitious ''Marriage Initiative.'' Premarital education will be offered on two tracks. First, couples in the churches with strong marriages will be trained as a network of ''Mentor Couples'' to prepare couples for a lifelong marriage through the creation of Community Marriage Policies in the 35 counties which have more divorces than marriages. Some churches have been able to put a ''safety net'' of Mentor Couples under every marriage reducing divorces to near zero.

     Second, government workers will be trained to teach skills of communication and conflict resolution to couples not reached by the churches. Every county has welfare workers, health care providers and agricultural extension agents.

     What could George Bush do? First, he should use his bully pulpit to issue an authoritative message on the value of marriage as a way to reduce poverty and illegitimacy, and as a way to improve the health, happiness, wealth and extend the lives of Americans. He ought to ask Congress to pass a joint resolution on the need for public policies to strengthen marriage. He could also urge the nation's churches to make marriage a priority - which it certainly is not today.

     Second, Bush could propose a change in the TANF law, which must be reauthorized this year. The Heritage Foundation is recommending that he set aside 5 percent of the TANF funds for pro-marriage activity like that pioneered in Oklahoma.

     These will be great years for the moralists.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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