Love and work in Congress

Posted: Sep 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Love and work, said Freud, are the hallmarks of a healthy life. But love and work are not so easily balanced. The scales always seem tilted toward one or the other. Still, most of us mere mortals continue to strive toward finding a balance. We like to watch others try, too. That's what the popular HBO sitcom "Sex in the City" is all about. It depicts the lives of single women in New York who find it considerably easier to find work that satisfies than men who do. No matter how much their careers gratify and how much money they have to buy expensive backless sandals, Cinderella's slipper eludes such women. When feminism burst upon us three decades ago, the emphasis was on the work. The fashion industry designed pantsuits and jackets with big shoulder pads to make women look as tough as men, and women's magazines were full of advice on how to find mentors, and tips on how to do the job better than men. Post-feminist sensibility changed that, and short skirts were soon back, with blouses unbuttoned to display cleavage, even at the office. We joined the game of watching privileged women, glamorous in their angst, search to right the balance that had tilted against love. Nobody much cared about "underprivileged" women in the same predicament. Nobody wants to watch a sitcom with the theme of love and work among women on Welfare. Congressmen were delegated to obsess on that subject. From left to right, love and work among the poor is hotly debated on Capitol Hill today. Conservatives are thumping for a Welfare renewal bill that passed the House in May. It lengthens the time a Welfare recipient must work; only full-time work is reckoned to offer the chance to leap out of poverty. The bill also pushes for the promotion of marriage, with the aim of enabling greater numbers of children to be raised in two-parent families. Liberals, mostly Democrats, attack the extended work hours and oppose the marriage advocacy provision. They prefer legislation sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, called the Work, Opportunity and Responsibility for Kids (WORK) Act. But the acronym is misleading. His bill is about enabling Welfare recipients to work less, not more. You have to read the fine print, but it creates perverse financial incentives for about half the states to increase their Welfare rolls and writes so many exceptions and loopholes, describing "activities" and "education" as work, that in the analysis of Robert Rector of the
Heritage Foundation, "no recipient would be required to do anything." Since Welfare reform was enacted in 1996, the number of people who rely on cash assistance from the federal government has dropped by 2.4 million families, about 60 percent below the high of 5.2 million families in 1992. The work requirement gave money and restored dignity to many women who had become dependent on Welfare. Births to teenagers fell and all out-of-wedlock births leveled off. Child poverty levels declined, most dramatically among blacks, from 44 percent in the 1990s to 31 percent in 2000. The numbers suggest that many children are growing up in better circumstances because their single mothers work. The stubborn fact remains that children raised with a mother and a father do better, by all measures of education, health, wealth and achievement. Such children are less likely to become single parents themselves. Encouraged, conservatives urge more vigorous promotion of marriage inside Welfare reform. This sounds at first like the last place the government ought to put in its two cents' worth (or in this case, its $300 million worth), but Wade Horn, the assistant secretary of Health and Human Services in charge of the Welfare program, makes a strong case for it. "We're not trying to bring couples together who don't want to be together," he says. "Only those couples who want premarital counseling or who want to stay together need apply. This is not a dating service, nor would it trap women in abusive relationships." He calls it "a healthy marriage initiative" that teaches couples how to control anger and resolve the conflicts that destroy relationships. It's about creating a better environment for the children born into poverty to thrive. Women, like those depicted on "Sex and the City," understand the shortcomings of the single life. This season the character of Miranda, a lawyer, gave birth to a child without marrying the father and the big debate in the closing episode was whether she should take her baby to a friend's lavish wedding reception. The promotion of marriage for the poor poses issues more important than such frivolous discussions, and may lead to healthier lives for poor children growing up at home with a mother and father. We don't have to wait for the sitcom to find out.