Thompson Would Reward Teenage Parents Who Marry

By Deborah L. Cohen — February 20, 1991 4 min read

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, who sparked controversy by introducing the first state plan to tie welfare benefits to school attendance, is now proposing to improve benefits for teenage parents who marry, while limiting payments to unwed teenage mothers who have more than one child.

Officials of the Thompson administration say the effort, which appears to be the first of its kind, seeks to promote and preserve families by removing disincentives to marriage and employment for welfare recipients and reducing incentives for unmarried teenagers to become pregnant and have more children.

Besides paying larger grants to teenage couples who marry, the “parental and family responsibility initiative” would allow them to earn up to $14,500 a year without losing welfare benefits.

The proposal also would eliminate the current prohibition against welfare participation by couples in which neither partner has an employment history, and require both parents to participate in education and training programs under the federal Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training program.

In addition, all Aid to Families With Dependent Children recipients under age 20 and their spouses or noncustodial fathers would be required to participate in classes on parenting, human development, sex education, and independent living.

The plan also would require minor mothers to live at home and offer incentives for counties to strengthen paternity establishment and child-support enforcement.

Administration officials say the effort would “establish incentives for low-income youth to delay pregnancy and parenting, to finish school, to form a two-parent family, to work, and to be financially and socially responsible parents.”

But critics warned last week that the Governor’s approach could have unintended consequences, such as encouraging teenagers to marry for the wrong reasons, stay in abusive situations, or seek abortions.

“I think we have a good goal and a bad program,” said George Gerharz, deputy director of the Social Development Commission, an intergovernmental community-action program in Milwaukee County.

The Republican Governor’s plan must first be approved by the Democrat-controlled legislature and be granted a waiver by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The controversial plan, which would not apply to current AFDC recipients, would affect about 1,600 new AFDC. applicants under age 20 in four counties slated for a pilot: Milwaukee, Rock, Douglas, and Juneau.

While the current system allows a Wisconsin mother with one child to receive $440 per month and $80 for each additional child, Mr. Thompson’s plan would cap the payment at $440 after the first child. Teenage parents who married, however, would receive about $80 beyond that per month, bringing the annual grant for a married couple with one child to $6,200--the same level now awarded to a single mother of two.

Mr. Thompson maintains his plan would reinforce the “responsibility of parenting.” But critics say it raises the specter of “shotgun” marriages.

Assemblywoman Rebecca Young, who is chairman of the House committee on children and human services, said she supports “removing barriers to getting AFDC for young families where a young parent does not have work experience.”

“However, to require teenagers either to be married or to live at home is an experiment in social engineering,” she said, arguing that the plan could present an untenable choice for teenage mothers who are the victims of sexual abuse at home or by a partner.

Ms. Young also said the move could sway more teenagers to consider abortions, which she said is “inconsistent with the Governor’s previous and very staunch opposition to abortion.”

The budget plan Mr. Thompson released this month, which contained the welfare proposals, also called for a substantial increase in funds for adolescent-pregnancy prevention. It stipulated that programs must not counsel about abortion or contraception, but instead must focus on abstinence.

Ms. Young also said capping payments to mothers with more than one child--who already fall below the poverty line--would unfairly penalize children and “increase the number of homeless families that have to rely on food pantries by mid-month.”

“Forcing young people or even encouraging them to get married when they are teens for financial incentives is really the wrong way to go about encouraging them to be responsible,” added Mr. Gerharz.

But state officials say their aim is not to force couples to marry or penalize mothers for having more children, but to remove barriers in the welfare system to those who want to marry.

“What we’re saying is that if couples want to get married and raise a child in a family setting, we think that’s terrific,” said Stephanie L. Smith, a spokesman for the Governor.

Another of Mr. Thompson’s controversial welfare experiments drew scrutiny this month, meanwhile, when researchers conducting a federally mandated evaluation reported that “serious omissions and errors” in records were preventing them from assessing the success of Learnfare.

The three-year-old program, which seeks to keep students in school by cutting the welfare benefits of families whose teenage children have frequent unexcused absences, is in the process of instituting new procedures to investigate and verify student absences in response to a legal challenge. (See Education Week, Nov. 7, 1990.)

The interim report on Learnfare by the Employment and Training Institute of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, which is part of a study to be completed in 1993, also showed that nearly half the teenage parents on welfare who have not graduated from high school are exempt from school attendance.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Thompson Would Reward Teenage Parents Who Marry