Welfare policy urges African-American faith leaders to take a more active role in promoting healthy marriages, relationships

While some Americans feel President Bush’s healthy marriage initiative aimed at getting women and children out of poverty crosses a line between church and state, a noted community development expert at Washington University in St. Louis says the potential economic gains of marriage will not offset the structural barriers related to unemployment, underemployment and limited access to family support and community services.

The Bush Administration has introduced proposals to renew Temporary Assistance for Needy Families that include spending $1.5 billion over five years to create programs with the goal of promoting marriage, reducing divorce and creating incentives for fathers to be involved in their children’s lives.

African-American faith leaders need to increase and expand marriage promotion and family strengthening activities.
African-American faith leaders need to increase and expand marriage promotion and family strengthening activities, says Stephanie C. Boddie, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Although controversial, President Bush’s plan to make marriage promotion an explicit element of the government’s anti-poverty policy sends an urgent call to African-American faith communities to increase and expand marriage promotion and build activities within their congregations,” says Stephanie C. Boddie, Ph.D., assistant professor in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Faith leaders in the African-American community need to be aware of the current vigorous debate about the definition, purpose, jurisdiction and future of marriage under way in the United States that is influencing federal welfare policy.”

In 2003, the Annie E. Casey Foundation convened a series of meetings lasting nearly a year with interdenominational faith leaders representing African-American congregations nationwide to discuss ways to promote marriage in low-income African-American communities.

Robert M. Franklin, Ph.D., the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Social Ethics at Emory University, and Boddie provide an overview of a Casey meeting and outline recommendations from the participants in a report titled “Healthy Marriages in Low-Income African-American Communities, Part 2: Expanding the Dialogue with Faith Leaders from Making Connections Sites.”

Stephanie Boddie
Stephanie Boddie

“Participants recognized that current marriage promotion and family strengthening activities that most churches offer reaffirm marriage but are not widely visible and usually are not seen as critical resources,” says Boddie, author of “The Invisible Caring Hand: American Congregations and the Provision of Welfare.” “Congregation-based programs often lack the resources to address factors that contribute to family challenges and stresses.”

In addition to specialized training, ongoing support and concrete incentives, participants recommended the following for clergy interested in developing marriage promotion programs:

  • Demonstrate awareness of the systemic dimension of individual, marriage and family challenges in low-income communities.
  • Address the lack of marriageable men in low-income communities as a key issue in understanding family issues.
  • Ensure that programmatic objectives are identifiable, measurable and feasible.
  • Invite African-American researchers and service providers to design, implement, direct and evaluate programs and services.
  • Conduct town hall meetings and focus groups to solicit input and recommendations from target populations prior to program development.
  • Employ a similar strategy for evaluation and feedback.
  • Understand the specific cultural nuances in contemporary African-American youth culture (hip hop and others) and avoid making premature negative judgments about elements of that subculture.

“Many participants hope that local congregations, national denominations and other gatherings of African-American clergy will stimulate informed discussion and inspire the leaders of the communities’ most influential institution to act on behalf of all our children’s well being,” Boddie adds.

“Investing in the formation of healthy relationships can bring us back to where we need to be as a community and a nation.”