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Wisconsin Governor Would Tie Welfare to Wedlock, Birth Control

February 7, 1991

MADISON, Wis. (AP) _ The budget proposal Gov. Tommy G. Thompson unveiled Thursday includes a welfare experiment to reward teen-age parents who marry and penalize dependent single mothers who have more children.

Thompson told the Legislature the experiment, which needs federal approval, would revamp a ″welfare system that discourages young couples from getting married and raising their child in a family setting.″

Critics immediately assailed the proposal, predicting it would force teens who have a child out of wedlock to marry for the wrong reasons and single mothers to seek abortions out of financial necessity.

″It sounds like a state-sponsored shotgun wedding,″ said Democratic Assembly Whip Barbara Notestein. ″It says if a teen gets pregnant she should get married to the father of the child.″

The Republican governor’s so-called Parental and Family Responsibility initiative would cap Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits for unmarried women at $440 a month, the government’s current limit for a single woman with one child.

Benefits would not increase, as they currently do, if the single woman had additional children while on AFDC.

But the plan would provide an $80-a-month increase in AFDC benefits for each additional child if the teen-age mother married. It also would allow married teen-age couples to earn up to $14,500 in income without losing any welfare benefits for their child.

The program would begin in just four counties - Milwaukee, Rock, Juneau and Douglas. The city of Milwaukee has the nation’s highest teen-age pregnancy rate.

″This program promotes and preserves families by not only providing opportunities for young couples to marry but also to encourage them to become gainfully employed,″ Thompson said in the speech announcing his $25.7 billion budget plan for 1991-93.

James Malone, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Health and Social Services, said the plan was the first of its sort in the nation. Officials with the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which would have to waive rules to allow the experiment, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Thompson, a close political ally of President Bush, has promoted welfare experiments since taking office in 1986.

Wisconsin’s Learnfare program docks the benefits of welfare families whose teen-age children skip school. Its Workfare program requires some welfare recipients to work or get job training to retain their benefits.

This latest move to tie welfare benefits to marriage and birth control drew immediate criticism.

″It’s a very dangerous trend for the state to be acting as a marriage broker,″ said Margaret McMurray, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin chapter of the National Organization for Women.

″The state has no business dictating who should get married or how many children they should have,″ she said. ″This is big brotherism.″

Ms. Notestein said she feared the AFDC cap for single women might force a mother who became pregnant to seek an abortion rather than risk further financial hardship.

″I’m shocked this governor who says he’s against abortion would suggest such a program,″ she said.

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Wisconsin Women’s Council, called the plan a sexist attempt at social engineering. ″It assumes that the solution to a woman’s poverty is a man,″ she said.

The Rev. Ted Steege, head of the Lutheran Office of Social Policy in Wisconsin, said his church supports marriage and parental responsibility but tying welfare to the two could create child abuse and neglect.

″It’s a cruel sort of experiment,″ Steege said.

But Thompson’s supporters said the program recognizes the realities of teen pregnancy and poverty.

Rep. Susan Vergeront, a Republican who served as chairwoman of the governor’s council that drafted the program, said the current AFDC program, which pays benefits only to single women with children, implies ″we’ll help you as long as you don’t get married.″