MADISON, WIS. -- Gov. Tommy G. Thompson (R) has proposed a welfare experiment to reward teenage parents who marry and penalize dependent single mothers of any age who have more children.
Thompson said Thursday that the experiment, which would require 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 teenagers 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 Assembly Democratic Whip Barbara Notestein.
Thompson's Parental and Family Responsibility initiative would cap Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) 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 now 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 teenage mother married. It also would allow married teenage couples to earn up to $14,500 in income without losing any welfare benefits for their child.
"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.
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.
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 teenage children skip school. Its Workfare program requires some welfare recipients to work or get job training to retain their benefits.
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.