WASHINGTON, March 31 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering brief opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks.
The Acton Institute
(The Acton Institute works to promote a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles. Its goal is to help build prosperity and progress on a foundation of religious liberty, economic freedom and personal moral responsibility.)
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- The continuing vision of welfare reform
By Phillip W. DeVous
Even with the sound successes of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, it is somewhat discouraging that American policymakers continue to dwell on how to increase the scope and reach of the government -- along with its cost. The latest expansion of the welfare state's size and scope comes in the form of Bush administration proposals to involve government in the issue of marriage.
While the moral instincts of the Bush administration are to be lauded, the thought that the welfare state apparatus that decimated the family life of the poor could now be employed to foster sound marriages and responsible fatherhood approaches the absurd.
Due respect, however, must be given to the president's desire to promote marriage as the primary vehicle of poverty alleviation. Study after study indicates that married couples enjoy higher levels of prosperity, education and overall familial well-being.
It is important for policy makers to send a clear message that out-of-wedlock births are not good for children, moms, dads and the community as a whole. Inasmuch as the administration seeks to enshrine the common sense principle that healthy marriages are good for children, a great deal has already been accomplished.
Promoting the virtues of healthy marriages is done best not by creating new programs with big budgets and large administrative bureaucracies. Rather, an appropriate first step would be to remove those penalties currently in the social service regulatory regime that make marriage "too costly" for those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum.
Even in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, couples can lose up to a quarter of their income simply by getting married. Often, marriage pushes a couple above the income eligibility limits, forcing a reduction in non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, which actually reduce the couple's total economic position. Such penalties reduce the incentive to productive work and increase the "cost" of marriage.
The difficulty with government social services is that they are a one-size-fits-all solution to the very unique and individual situations that couples face. As a result of government inefficiency, the most common sense reforms that could occur are simply removing tax code and regulatory penalties that make marriage too costly for many couples.
Another important point in this debate centers on policy makers' constant desire to throw money at an admirable social goal -- an increase in healthy marriages. The proposed program, currently in draft form, would involve a maximum of $22 million in federal and state money for approximately 15 communities.
This figure, however, is not reflective of the amount of money individual states may choose to set aside within the funding provided by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, block grant each state receives. Total costs of these programs could go into the hundreds of millions of dollars, with no clear aim as to what the programs are to do or how success will be measured.
Their proposed activities include educating young people about the benefits of marriage, providing skills necessary for healthy marriages, and creating media campaigns to rebuild cultural norms related to marriage, family formation, fatherhood, and the benefits of delaying childbearing until marriage.
While these are admirable social goals, a very serious question remains -- is it even possible for a one-size-fits-all, lowest-common-denominator government bureaucracy to promote and present a spiritually, psychologically and personally sound understanding of marriage and family life?
Given the great cultural and moral divides that are currently present in nearly all national policy debates, I doubt a morally sound vision of marriage can be sustained by the various agencies of government.
Given the Bush administration's propensity to engage the expertise of faith-based organizations in attempting to rebuild and sustain a culture of responsibility and personal accountability, it seems that it has overlooked the resources of faith-based organizations in promoting and sustaining healthy marriages. The difficulty with government involvement in marriage promotion is that government is not capable of communicating the compelling moral vision needed to sustain marriages in our current culture -- a culture that values lifestyle liberalism, "self-actualization," and the prerogatives of self over the self-sacrifice involved in healthy marriages.
Marriage is a public commitment, but also one that is profoundly spiritual and personal in nature. Most appropriately, faith-based organizations, commonly known as churches and ministries, have always been on the front line of the battle in promoting and sustaining healthy marriages. The matrimonial commitment involves the deepest convictions of the human person and to think that any government program is capable of actively fostering these relationships, must less the culture necessary to truly support them, is simply not tenable. Government involvement in promoting marriage should extend no farther than removing the disincentives and obstacles that have served to discourage marriage in the past.
While it is encouraging to see the virtues of marriage restored to a central place in our nation's social policy, it is difficult to understand just how these programs will work or what the unintended effects of these government programs might be. Since this is the first time such programs have been attempted by government social service agencies, the possibility of these programs' success is cast into further doubt.
The welcome desire of the Bush administration to promote marriage serves as a prime opportunity to engage the wealth of experience contained within the faith-based community. Marriage and family life is an issue that most appropriately belongs to those capable of ministering to the needs of the married and those desiring marriage. When the coercive power of government involves itself in issues properly belonging within the sphere of civil society, even with the best of intentions, the unintended effects of such involvement almost always results in irreparable harm to civil society and its mediating institutions.
In the case of marriage, civil society's preeminent institution, the best policy government can adopt is one that is both approving and "hands off" in every way.
(Phillip W. DeVous is the public policy manager of the Acton Institute.)
The Mackinac Center for Public Policy
(MCPP is a nonpartisan research and educational organization devoted to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions through the objective analysis of Michigan issues. MCPP seeks to broaden the policy past the belief that government intervention should be the standard solution for various issues. MCPP offers an integrated and comprehensive approach encompassing the role of voluntary associations, business, community and family, as well as government.)
MIDLAND, Mich. -- The other meaning of Arbor Day
by Daniel Hager
When J. Sterling Morton left Michigan for the wind-swept prairies of Nebraska in 1854, he found few trees there. He became an ardent tree planter and in 1872 founded Arbor Day to encourage others to follow his lead.
The annual event -- April 26 this year -- is a time to praise the beauty and emphasize the importance of trees to the environment. But we should also learn a little about the man who gave us this special day in the first place.
J. Sterling Morton had another motive behind his Arbor Day advocacy. He detested the protective tariff that enriched the U.S. lumber industry and depleted native forests. He wanted to break the power of the tariff. So his secondary Arbor Day message was: Plant a tree and strike a blow for free trade.
Morton later got the chance to preach his doctrines from a national pulpit as U.S. secretary of agriculture during the second term of President Grover Cleveland, from 1893 to 1897. Democrat Cleveland was an advocate of bare-bones government and, like Morton, a foe of public handouts that favored one group of citizens over another.
Before that, Morton had risen to prominence as the fiery editor of the Nebraska City News. He applied wit and sarcasm both in his newspaper pages and in oral debates.
Morton got to Nebraska by way of boyhood homes in Monroe and Detroit, where he chafed under the restrictions of his pious parents. He attended the University of Michigan until kicked out for "manifest contempt of the authorities." He learned journalism at the Detroit Free Press before striking out for Nebraska in 1854.
As a Democrat in a primarily Republican region, he was defeated in most of several attempts at elected office. But he had the personality and the platform to keep vital issues before the public. He denounced economic favoritism in all its forms, especially trade protectionism.
Morton used his love of trees to attack high tariffs. He wanted more trees in the ground as a wedge against lumber interests. Americans, he correctly argued, were paying a "bounty" in inflated costs of lumber because of the protective tariff, which amounted to a burdensome tax on consumers. It is imposed, he wrote, "not to get a revenue into the public treasury, but to give an artificial value to home-made lumber, and to shut out competition."
Protectionism, Morton believed, amounted to political partiality and allowed American industries to grow fat with inefficiency. Free trade lowered consumer prices through the efficiencies of free markets. Morton used his vice presidency of the American Free Trade League as yet another platform to spread this message.
As Secretary of Agriculture, Morton battled to keep government small and fair. He was appalled to find that most of his budget was a "gratuity, paid by money raised from all the people, and bestowed upon a few people." He halted subsidies specific to sugar-beet growers on the grounds that "the power to tax was never vested in a Government for the purpose of building up one class at the expense of other classes."
He cut the free-seed program to farmers, which had soared in cost over the years, asking, "Is it a function of government to make gratuitous distribution of any material thing?" He fought against "paternal lawmaking," saying that if his department was "to be conducted in the spirit of paternalism, the sooner it is abolished the better for the United States." He rid his staff of patronage jobs. In his four years as agriculture secretary, he operated at almost 20 percent under his allotted budget.
But the tide in the national Democratic Party was turning toward special treatment for favored groups. These forces, under the leadership of William Jennings Bryan, captured the party in 1896 from the wing led by Cleveland and Morton. Morton retired to start his own newspaper, The Conservative, and kept attacking protective tariffs until his death in 1902.
Morton called his home in Nebraska City "Arbor Lodge" for its lavish tree plantings. He gave us Arbor Day to promote the value of trees, but Arbor Day should also remind us of J. Sterling Morton's foundational political philosophy: equal rights for all and government favoritism to none.
(Daniel Hager is an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)