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The Right Questions

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Some anemic academics 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: Reading the Bible often leads us to see the limitations of conventional approaches.

Example: Welfare reform. The last major revisions, those of 1996, were successful, contra liberal predictions of disaster. Work requirements pushed parents without young children to change attitudes and improve employability. But we are knocking against a glass ceiling here: Single moms with kids make up the largest part of our national poverty problem, and it's exceptionally hard for one person without backup to grow a career and grow children at the same time.

Here's where chapter 2 of Genesis, which reveals the centrality of marriage, makes a huge difference. In 1995 I was one of many to visit the Kenosha County Job Center in Wisconsin. At that time Kenosha was the shiny face of state-level welfare reform: Twelve state delegations, dozens of reporters, and welfare bureaucrats from all over, including Tanzania, came and marveled.

I wrote positively about the work requirements but noted a big problem: 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." The Bible proclaims something different: Children and parents, and wives and husbands, need each other. Sure, in God's oft- confusing providence some dads and moms die, and some men and women are called to singleness, but it is not good for man to be alone.

In 1996 the Kenosha job center director won praise for saying that he told welfare recipients "straight-out that marriage is not the answer." I pointed out—not because I'm a good observer, but because of a biblical worldview—that marriage in many situations is the answer, and it's not impossible. I spoke with welfare moms like Donna Harris who had married, made economic progress, and become a neighborhood stabilizer: "When I saw a drug sale to young boys, I called the police."

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. From 1996 to 2001 Wisconsin-style welfare reform did move hundreds of thousands of people toward economic independence. But others stayed stuck, and in 2003 the Manhattan Institute organized a conference that asked, "Whither Welfare Reform? Lessons from the Wisconsin Experience."

At the conference NYU professor Lawrence Mead argued that "we must find a way to get the fathers involved." New York Times welfare specialist Jason DeParle said the "biggest surprise" to him as he wrote about poor communities was "just how much yearning there was among the kids and their mothers for the fathers." None of this is a surprise to those with a biblical worldview. In Genesis, God places us in families. In the last verse of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:6, God speaks of turning "the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction."

With over 40 percent of children born out of wedlock, we seem on the path to destruction. Can government (our modern god) do something to help, when so many men have become what writer George Gilder called "naked nomads"? At the conference, Jason Turner, who led the welfare reform campaign in Wisconsin and then took it to New York City, stated sadly, "There is no solution that I can think of that will fundamentally affect men at the moment."

Turner was right, thinking governmentally. We can do small things, such as eliminating the financial hit folks on welfare get when they marry: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback and others in Washington have proposed ways to reduce that marriage penalty. Still, I know from reading the Bible what many social scientists don't know: Only Jesus changes lives.

Back to my original point: 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.

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