By CATHERINE BYRNE
Capital News Service
LANSING — With 90 percent of adult welfare recipients being women, a leading Michigan women’s group is issuing a call to action for welfare reform targeted toward single mothers.
Linda Varonich of Pontiac, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Organization for Women (MI NOW), announced last week that her organization favors job training for women rather than legislation that encourages marriage as “the cure for poverty.”
“We all support healthy relationships, but taxpayer dollars should be invested in areas that would help the economy,” Varonich said. “They’re putting money into an untested moral bailiwick.
Varonich said MI NOW is not against marriage or fatherhood, but wants to encourage financial independence for women.
“We need to teach women how to utilize skills to get them the best-paying job they can have,” she said. “Not just any old job, as is the case now, but jobs with wages with which you can raise a family.”
Sen. Harry Gast, R-St. Joseph, believes this issue is trivial considering the state’s current budget crisis and asks, “Where’s the money for this program coming from?”
“We’re limited in resources,” Gast said. ” We’d have to take that money from something else. It’s hard enough to keep existing programs afloat. What NOW is asking for is money we just don’t have.”
Some legislators believe training programs have already been implemented in welfare programs across the state.
“I was under the impression we already were providing job training for women,” said Rep. Ron Jelinek, R-Three Oaks. “We really believe self-sufficiency is the only solution to poverty.”
Jelinek is not alone in his confusion at NOW’s claim.
“One thing I’m puzzled about is the fact that we already do give training to single mothers,” said Sen. Joanne Emmons, R-Big Rapids. “We do a lot of things already that NOW is asking for.”
Rep. Gilda Jacobs, D-Huntington Woods, contends training programs are the ideal solution to the abundance of female welfare recipients.
“We need to give people the tools to be successful and independent so they can get off welfare,” Jacobs said.
Emmons believes, aside from pre-existing training programs, that marriage promotion would be very beneficial to single mothers on welfare.
“Healthy families have a mother and a father,” Emmons said. “I raised two kids with a husband and the task is just awesome.
“It’s tough to be a wage earner and a mother. Two-parent families really do help women.”
Rep. Paul DeWeese, R-Williamston, sees both sides of the situation as possibly beneficial.
“What we don’t want to do is force women to stay in unstable or violent marriages,” DeWeese said. “But it would help in healthy relationships to have fathers and husbands taking more responsibility in things like child rearing and just bringing home another paycheck.”
Varonich cautions against any policy initiative based on the idea that marriage prevents domestic violence.
“If a woman is living with an abuser, chances are that marrying him will not stop the abuse,” she warned. “This kind of misinformation only compounds the pressure many victims already feel to stay in a violent marriage, putting themselves and their children at great risk.”
Jacobs contends marriage is not a “quick fix” for struggling single mothers.
“There are a lot of single women with good jobs and good support systems who do just fine,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think marriage is an instant solution. As long as a woman has a support system, whether it be her family, friends or a husband, she can make ends meet.”
The Family Independence Agency recognizes the importance of family, but does not consider a two-parent household a “necessity.”
“We’re focusing on family formation,” said FIA Assistant Communications Director Maureen Sorbet. “Marriage is only one aspect, it’s not always the answer.”
Gast feels that Gov. John Engler’s State of the State Address had solutions for single mothers in his health care plan.
Engler spoke of new health insurance benefits coming to families and Gast believes ideas like that could help the people NOW is working for until the budget is taken care of.
The Mink Bill, a measure currently being debated in U.S. Congress, would create economic opportunities for women by steering additional funding to states that emphasize education and training.
If passed into law, the measure would suspend the time limit on receiving benefits while recipients are working or pursuing education and training.
It would also guarantee child care and mandate access to services that address employment barriers such as mental illness, physical disability, substance abuse and domestic and sexual violence.
MI NOW supports aspects of that bill, but contends it will take a little more than promises to make significant changes, Varonich said.
“It’s not as easy as waving a magic piece of legislation over women on welfare,” she said. “Welfare has so many social and economic ramifications that some aspects are out of legislative grasp.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism
By CATHERINE BYRNE