The federal government would provide a marriage bonus of up to $9,000 to low-income D.C. residents under legislation approved yesterday by a Senate panel, a plan that analysts said would mark the first such use of federal funds in the country.
Under the proposal by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), District couples who set up savings accounts to buy a home, send a child to college or start a business would receive a matching federal contribution of $3 for every $1 they invested, up to a maximum lifetime payment of $9,000. They would have to withdraw the money within three years and be married by that time.
The program also would be open for up to four years to single, childless D.C. residents ages 16 to 22 who have undergone job, education and financial counseling. The maximum federal payment for single people would be $4,500.
Participation would be limited to couples earning up to $50,000 a year or single people earning up to $25,000 a year, neither of whose net worth could exceed $10,000, excluding their home and a vehicle.
Brownback, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, championed the so-called marriage development accounts as part of the $9 billion District budget bill. The Senate committee unanimously approved the budget and sent it to the Senate floor.
Congress created similar individual development accounts in 1998, and both former president Bill Clinton and President Bush have promoted the idea to help low-income working families and reduce welfare rolls. But the concept has never been linked to marriage.
In a report explaining the provision, Brownback's aides said that single mothers account for about 57 percent of the babies born each year in the District, a figure that is more than 40 percent higher than the national average.
"Most children born and raised in households where their biological parents are married are more financially and emotionally stable," the report said.
In an interview yesterday, Brownback, a leading social conservative, called marriage "a leading poverty reducer."
"We do know the statistics. The best situation to raise a child is a man and a woman bonded together for life. That's where children do best," he said.
D.C. officials, who often have criticized congressional Republicans for imposing programs and requirements on the city, said they welcomed the initiative.
"The virtual disappearance of marriage among many young African Americans of every income level and the devastating effects on children demand all the help we can get to draw attention to the responsibility all of us must assume," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who founded the Commission on Black Men and Boys to strengthen black families.
The bill would set aside $1.5 million a year for the federal contributions to marriage development accounts. It would send another $1.5 million to the East Capitol Center for Change of Washington or the National Center for Fathering of Kansas City, Mo., to work with churches to provide marriage counseling and couples mentoring.
Individuals would get a $200 bonus upon getting married, and couples would get a $300 bonus for participating in marital counseling.
Some analysts said they doubted whether such incentives would significantly influence poor working women in their decisions about marriage.
"I can't see how it would hurt, but I can't see how it helps, either," Urban Institute analyst Gregory Acs said.
"If the senator is thinking of using matched savings as an incentive for marriage, then I would say there are more important reasons to get married. As a Kansan myself, I imagine the people back home would wonder what the senator could be thinking," said Michael Sherraden, a Washington University professor who helped develop individual development accounts. Sherraden said he had not seen Brownback's bill.
The senator's plan is more generous than the individual development account program in the District, which is limited to couples earning less than $25,660 and individuals earning less than $19,140, and which provides a federal match of 2 to 1, his aides said.
"I personally could have found better ways to spend 3 million federal dollars," D.C. shadow senator Paul Strauss (D) said. "But at least this time, the right-wing social policy engineers brought carrots instead of sticks to the D.C. budget process."
The budget bill that cleared the Senate committee includes $593 million in direct federal aid to the District, according to Brownback's staff.
The Senate bill includes two other Brownback initiatives: $2 million in assistance for Hispanic youths and $3 million to help former offenders find housing upon release from prison.