Inside the Safeway grocery store on Minnesota Ave NE at midday, Edward Bellamy pushed the grocery cart up and down the aisles while his girlfriend, Carla Thompson, glanced intently at her shopping list: milk, eggs, cheese and formula for their infant son, Carlton.
They teased each other gently as they shopped, like a familiar married couple. Soon they found what they needed. At the checkout, Bellamy lined up the purchases, which would be paid for with government food vouchers for low-income mothers, and Thompson, for a moment, mused on matrimony. The couple, both 23, met a little over a year ago and often talk of making the relationship more permanent, she said.
"I really wanted to do it before he got here," she said, pointing to a napping Carlton in the car seat; he entered the world just a few weeks ago.
But as the oldest of four children, and the first planning to marry, Thompson wanted a ceremony and, at least, some sort of reception. Things like that cost money, she said, and the couple doesn't have much. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in far Northeast, close to the Maryland border, with Thompson's 3-year-old daughter, Kennedy. Bellamy is unemployed and Thompson receives $535 monthly disability checks for a back injury, she said.
As a low-income, unmarried District couple receiving public benefits, they are exactly the kind of people Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) has in mind. Under his $3 million proposal, low-income engaged and married District couples would get the chance to set up savings accounts eligible for a federal match for three specific purposes: to buy a home, send a child to college or start a business.
Capital Asset Building Corp., a District-based nonprofit, would receive $1.5 million to manage the accounts and offer referrals to services that would encourage low-income residents to save.
About 57 percent of District babies are born to single mothers. That statistic, along with a belief that marriages would help children in poor families, was the impetus for the bill from Brownback, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, according to aides. In the past, District officials have reacted with skepticism to federal proposals that seemed to dictate social policy -- but this time, there was praise. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has said she supports the bill.
As she listened to the details of the marriage proposal, Thompson's eyes widened. She had no idea there was a program that would give the couple money for marriage, something they were planning. And as he loaded grocery bags in the cart, Bellamy imagined exactly how he'd put the money to use: toward buying a home.
In 1996, Congress set aside money for marriage education programs when it rewrote the welfare law, launching a national debate on whether saying "I do" could change the dynamics of poverty, particularly for poor children, and curb public assistance rolls. Since 2002, the Bush administration has spent $56 million under its Healthy Marriages Initiative, a federal grant program to nonprofits so they can sponsor forums and workshops on marriage and family.
Research varies on the effectiveness of tying welfare reform to marriage promotion. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has found that couples that received marriage-skills training were better communicators than those who did not take part, which could mean that there would be fewer single heads of households, since couples might stay together.
A joint study by Princeton University and Columbia University researchers found that differences in education levels and work history between married and unmarried couples were the reasons for income disparities between the two groups, which would not have been changed by marriage.
"Marriage is about a lifelong commitment between two people," said Marshall Miller, co-founder of Alternatives to Marriage Project, a nonprofit that advocates for unmarried people. "It's a decision they should come to on their own, not one that was the result of Uncle Sam pushing them down the aisle."
Of the roughly 107,000 children living in the District in 2003, about 63,000 of them, or 59 percent, lived in single-parent households, according the 2005 Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count survey. Additionally, the report said that 18 percent of District families headed by a woman received child support, compared with 36 percent nationally.
The National Center on Fathering, based in Kansas City, Mo., would get $850,000 to set up a new District child support program. Known as "Fathering Court," it would offer programs and services to encourage men to be more involved in their children's lives, emotionally and financially, said Ken Canfield, National Center's president.
East Capitol Center for Change, a city nonprofit that works with youth and families east of the Anacostia River, is scheduled to receive $650,000. Curtis Watkins, the center's executive director, said the group held two marriage workshops in the past year with local churches, keeping costs down through in-kind donations. He said his organization would act as a grantmaker and encourage other city groups that want to promote marriage to apply.
Changing a community happens one person at a time, said Watkins, who has hope that the efforts would grow. "We look at this as building momentum for a citywide marriage moment," he said.
Edward E. Harris, 26, of Northeast attended one of the workshops in February. He said he was drawn by advice from a woman who had been married for more than 50 years: Pay attention to the little things, trust runs deep, don't leave conversations angry or upset.
"Somebody that's been married for 50, 55 years, that's something special in the black community," Harris said. "That's the only person I've known to be married that long."
He was raised well by his grandmother, but when he got to high school, he was well liked and got distracted by the popularity, he said. At 17, he had fathered a son but wasn't there for the mother of the child while she was pregnant.
At the time of the seminar, Harris was in a long-term relationship and living with his pregnant girlfriend. After their daughter Nasir was born, he wanted to set an example for her and for his son Marquel, now 10.
Several months ago, he and his fiancee, Latisha Smith, 30, got engaged.