Welfare, Marriage and the Bible

Academics often say biblical belief has no place in the social sciences because it keeps people from open-minded analysis of data. Actually, the opposite is true: A biblical worldview often reveals the limitations of conventional approaches and pushes us to ask the right questions, so that the data we obtain will not leave us still ignorant.

The key new component of the welfare reform bill signed into law earlier this month by President Bush — the move to fund marriage education — arose out of asking the right questions. Those questions were largely unasked in 1995, when Wisconsin’s reforms became the model for the nation.

Reforms such as work requirements and time limits on benefits were good, but when I visited that year the Kenosha County Job Center, Wisconsin’s show-off site, a big problem was obvious: Feminism dominated the center. On the walls of two large training rooms were signs proclaiming, "A family doesn’t need a man to be whole," and, "Stop waiting for Prince Charming, his horse broke down."

Well, yes and no. Kids without dads sometimes do fine, but when they’re adults and look back, they’ll usually tell you that they’re not whole. And sure, welfare moms should not passively wait for Prince Charming, but for decades marriage has been the most-used exit from welfare rolls. Despite the history, Kenosha’s director was emphatic: "We tell them straight-out that marriage is not the answer."

Since Wisconsin analysts didn’t pay attention to marriage, they often didn’t ask the right questions. They didn’t realize that work requirements are necessary but not sufficient, since raising children without dads, even with governmental economic support, is hard economically and even harder psychologically.

From 1996 through 2000, the Wisconsin welfare reform model was dominant, and an emphasis on marriage and family dormant. Wisconsin-style welfare reform moved hundreds of thousands of people toward economic independence, but others stayed stuck. In 2001, Wade Horn and other Bush appointees at the Department of Health and Human Services began, in their official capacity, asking why.

One reflection of the new thinking came in a conference report published late in 2003 by the Manhattan Institute, "Whither Welfare Reform? Lessons from the Wisconsin Experience." In it, NYU professor Lawrence Mead argues that "we must find a way to get the fathers involved," and New York Times welfare specialist Jason DeParle notes what his reporting showed him: "The biggest surprise to me was just how much yearning there was among the kids and their mothers for the fathers."

None of this was a surprise to those with a biblical worldview. God says in chapter two of Genesis, "It is not good for man to be alone." He tells Eve in Genesis 3, "Your desire will be for your husband." The last verse of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:6, speaks of God "turning the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers."

Can government (our modern god) do something to help? In the conference report, Jason Turner, who led the welfare reform campaign in Wisconsin and then took it to New York City, states sadly, "There is no solution that I can think of that will fundamentally affect men at the moment." Outside of religious revival, he’s probably right — but the new law is an attempt to find out what, if anything, government can do. And since we’ve tried just about everything else, we might as well focus on marriage.

But back to my original point: Biblical social scientists have an advantage because they know truths about human nature. Those who dismiss the Bible and create surveys that don’t measure crucial factors are the ones who have closed minds. Sometimes the Bible gives us clear answers and sometimes it doesn’t, but it always helps us to ask the right questions.