State Senator's Nitpicking Ignores Larger Issue

Posted: Apr 05, 2001 12:00 AM
In Oklahoma, one of those manufactured mini-scandals so dear to the overheated press has erupted over Gov. Frank Keating's new marriage initiative. One state senator, Kevin Easley (by name), D-Tulsa (by political affiliation), audaciously charged that Mary Myrick, a consultant hired by the state to help manage Gov. Keating's ambitious new plan, submitted bills that were "certainly outrageous and wasteful in my view," as he pontificated to The Oklahoman. Such as? Such as $437.50 for reviewing the videotapes of a potential speaker at a marriage conference. Such as $732.50 for Ms. Myrick and her staff to digest a book that I co-authored (with University of Chicago Professor Linda J. Waite, "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier and Better-Off Financially"). Is this the best you can do, Sen. Easley? Mary Myrick must be cleaner than a whistle, if that's the case. The great and good Sen. Easley apparently believes that his fellow Oklahomans consider reading books a scandalous activity for a government policymaker. Is this good PR or bad PR for the state? I'm torn between the attractive quaintness of a political community so clean and free of pressing problems that it can afford to get morally outraged when government does research before enacting policies, and, on the other hand, Sen. Easley apparently thinking it's fair or prudent to invite the nation's ridicule of his state by finding a little research "certainly outrageous." Oklahomans deserve better. Oklahoma is on the leading edge of the new marriage movement. Frank Keating is the only governor to even attempt to use some surplus welfare money to help poor families stay together and avoid the need for welfare in the first place. Part of his plan consists of retraining public health nurses and other social workers who counsel welfare clients on the benefits of marriage and the existence of helpful marriage and relationship skills programs for clients who may be living together and interested in marriage, but who receive little support in their community for getting and staying married. I don't know if it will work. But if you doubt the need for this kind of innovation in Oklahoma and elsewhere, talk to Timothy, who grew up in the Jackson-Sherrick project in Canton, Ohio. Out of 300 families, mostly African-American, how many had fathers in the home? I ask. Long, long laugh. "Two that I remember," he told me. Of those two fathers, one just got out of jail for murder. "He was actually a pretty good guy; I played chess with him," Timothy recalls. "He basically ended up back in prison for violating parole." The other dad was a neighbor with two kids who worked a minimum-wage job. A welfare worker told the family they "could get more benefits if he left, and he did," says Timothy. That wasn't uncommon advice from social workers, in his experience. "My wife's parents had seven children, and they basically had trouble putting food on the table, so the social workers' answer was: 'We can get your family more benefits if you leave.'" Shocking really, but not to Timothy: "I've heard that before. Coming from the projects, it didn't surprise me. There are more people than you think who have followed the advice." Welfare reform has been a great success in getting women into the workplace, but getting dads back into the home? So far, nada. Changing the culture of social work deserves a high priority. For as Timothy can tell you, right now the risk of apathy, indifference, despair -- of doing nothing, of letting marriage die out in low-income communities, of depriving kids of fathers and whole communities of the benefits of marriage -- is by far the greater risk. (Readers may reach Maggie Gallagher at COPYRIGHT 2001 MAGGIE GALLAGHER