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When the Bush marriage bureau rolls into town

George Bush's views on same-sex marriage have been a red-hot issue in the US presidential campaign. Less known is his proposal to use heterosexual marriage to get single mothers off benefits.

Marriage is shaping up to be a red-hot issue in the US elections in November. An uproar over same-sex marriages, some analysts believe, could even tip the presidential race.

Bowing to conservative outrage after Massachusetts became the first US state to marry gay partners, President George W Bush promised to support a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages. The amendment, he declared, "should fully protect [heterosexual] marriage, while leaving [states] free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage."

Although the amendment was defeated in the Republican-controlled Senate in July, at least 14 states intend putting referendums banning same-sex marriage on their ballots in November, in a move that gay rights campaigners say could boost Bush's Republican Party.

"Isn't that the ultimate homeland security, standing up for marriage…" declared Pennsylvania Republican Senator Rick Santorum during the Senate debate.

Lurking just below the national radar, however, is the equally controversial Bush marriage proposal to encourage single mothers to marry, which his Democratic Party rival John Kerry broadly supports. The 'Healthy Marriage Initiative', included in a bill before Congress, directs millions more federal dollars into marriage promotion schemes, encouraging – critics say coercing – single mothers to the altar… and off government benefits.

Marriage promotion was first raised by former Democratic President Bill 'I-did-not-have- sex-with-that-woman' Clinton in his 1996 welfare reform act. But despite bi-partisan moral exhortation, there are more unmarried US households than married ones.

Advocates claim that marriage – which shifts poor women's dependence on government to husbands – guarantees healthier, happier and financially secure families. But this is vigorously contested by many researchers and women's groups.

The reality, critics warn, is that the bill will divert scarce funds from education and job training. Many say existing marriage promotion schemes financially penalize those single mothers – and therefore their children – who decline to marry.

Ordinary citizens resent the intrusion of government into intimate decisions. Alicia Davis, 18, an African-American woman who lives with the father of her child, says the relationship is too unstable to consider marriage, which she takes seriously. "We break up, like, every other day and then we get back together."

Marriage promotion is untested and fiscally irresponsible, argues Lisalyn Jacobs of the National Organization of Women. She advocates funding childcare and education, which have a proven record of breaking the cycle of poverty, particularly among women.

Simply put, a college degree is the biggest contributor to financial independence, says Avis Jones-DeWeever of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington D.C.

Current state laws, in any case, already discourage women on welfare from gaining meaningful qualifications. Tabitha Asberry, an 18-year-old single mother in Austin, was studying full time to become a radiologist when officials threatened to deny her food stamps unless she took a low-paid job. "If marriage were going to get me a higher income, I'd go get married right now!" she fumes.

Impoverished communities, especially black inner-city neighbourhoods, "have a statistical imbalance," explains Jones-DeWeever. A 1992 study found that there is only one unmarried black man with earnings above the poverty threshold for every three unmarried black women in their twenties.

Indiana welfare recipient Denise Hilliard adds, "It's not exactly like a millionaire is going to pull up in a limo."

Once the bill is ratified, private contractors, including religious organisations, will compete for lucrative grants. Mike McManus, a white man who founded the faith-based group Marriage Savers, believes that poverty is caused by a deterioration of the institution of marriage, specifically among blacks.

"The problem is non-marriage by blacks. This is a self-induced problem, and the white culture is going the same way the black culture went," he told Panos Features. It is a charge that is firmly refuted by Jones-DeWeever.

"Research does not in any way indicate that black people value marriage any less than their white counterparts," she says. "Before we talk about how the black family is dysfunctional, we need to take a hard look at what this nation has done institutionally to disadvantage the African American population."

Critics also fear the 'Wed-Fare' solution may force poor women into marrying violent partners and make separation or divorce difficult for abused women – outcomes rejected by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. It says the initiative is voluntary and not about "running a federal dating service, coercing anyone to marry or remain in unhealthy relationships or limiting access to divorce."

While conceding that women shouldn't stay in dangerous relationships, McManus says divorce is not the answer. Instead he compares abusive husbands with misbehaving teenagers and urges temporary separation as a shock tactic for violent men. "Like for a child you say: 'You can't drive the car for the next two weeks'."

The reality is that a majority of women on welfare have experienced domestic violence and a high percentage is currently abused.

Bush's policies promoting abstinence-only sex education and opposition to abortion already influences US foreign aid. His administration continues to withhold its annual $34 million contribution to the UN Population Fund, the world's largest provider of family planning services. A recent New York Times editorial charged that the Bush administration's "benighted policies put millions at risk".

The fear is more may be on the way. As delegates to the July International AIDS Conference learned, rather than offering protection, marriage puts many women at risk. According to US Census Bureau analysis, a majority of women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa are contracting HIV within marriage because they cannot insist husbands are faithful or use condoms.

"The US is replicating Bush's policies and values on an international level," says Jones-DeWeever. "I wouldn't be surprised to see the next incarnation of marriage promotion worldwide."

Amber Novak is a freelance journalist focusing on social and environmental issues in Texas.

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