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More perfect unions

Early edition: New government initiatives look to encourage a powerful weapon against poverty and neglect - the stable, two-parent family.

By VANESSA GEZARI
Published January 6, 2007


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Hours after giving birth to her daughter, Stephanie Lopez lay in a hospital bed, tired and elated. Relatives streamed in to gaze at the baby. Among them was a woman Stephanie had never seen before.

The stranger wore hospital scrubs, carried a clipboard and extended an invitation: Did Stephanie and her boyfriend, Mohamed Khan, want to build a stronger family that would nurture their daughter?

As part of a federally funded program, a home visitor would teach them parenting skills. Stephanie and Mohamed would attend weekly meetings with other couples to work on their relationship. They would spend couples' nights bowling and playing miniature golf.

Mohamed thought it sounded like fun. Stephanie took it as a sign from God.

"I was questioning our relationship a lot," she said later. "We had gotten in a few arguments, and I had gotten to the point where I thought we needed some counseling. The only thing is, we didn't have the money for that."

On that August day, their chances of staying together didn't look good. They had only been dating a couple of months before Stephanie got pregnant.

Mohamed was a 29-year-old Muslim from Guyana who wore baggy jeans and a diamond stud earring; he liked the idea of marriage, but a few months before his daughter's birth, he was still spending half his paycheck on designer clothes and bottles of Hennessy in nightclub V.I.P. rooms.

Stephanie was 21, a churchgoing Puerto Rican with a habit of listing her goals for self-improvement on sheets of notebook paper. Her family took a dim view of marriage; her mother had raised her alone, after splitting with the man Stephanie called "my sperm donor."

"She basically taught me the rules of life: If you don't do it for yourself, nobody else is going to do it for you. Don't depend on anybody. Don't trust anybody."

Now, the federal government is trying to instill a different lesson: that two parents can be better than one; that a woman can depend on the father of her child; that marriage can work. In October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced it will spend $150-million a year through 2011 on marriage promotion and responsible fatherhood programs, including $33-million in Florida.

A national crisis

For Stephanie, who enrolled in a marriage-education pilot program with Mohamed shortly after their daughter was born, relationship classes aren't just about getting married; they're about finding a government-funded route out of poverty. Along with work and school, marriage seems to offer a shot at transformation, from what Stephanie calls "a statistic" to a stable, middle-class family.

"I don't ask for a lot of luxury or expensive things," she said, "Just so I can live comfortably and not have to worry, 'Is this bill going to be paid?' Just simple things like that."

A decade ago, welfare reform became the first federal legislation to make marriage an explicit policy goal. Calling the rising number of unwed pregnancies and births a "crisis in our nation," its authors revamped welfare to focus on "promoting job preparation, work and marriage."

Since then, the government's marriage initiative has gone from a hot-button political issue to that rare social policy on which liberal academics and Bush administration officials can agree. Families with two incomes are less likely to be poor, and studies show married people earn and save more.

Research also suggests marriage is good for children. Studies show children born to unmarried parents have more behavioral problems, higher rates of teen pregnancy and delinquency, lower educational attainment and more problems finding and keeping jobs.

"Marriage by itself is not an antipoverty program, but marriage is not irrelevant to poverty," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, who has been driving federal marriage policy since 2001.

Dangerous unions?

Some antipoverty advocates say marriage education shifts government funds from reducing poverty to promoting family values. Some domestic violence experts say it risks forcing poor women into dangerous unions.

But officials say the programs are voluntary and promote "healthy marriages." Many who once opposed the policy now support it.

"We all laughed and said, 'Oh God, they're going to tell everybody they should be married,' " said Pat Gerard, chief operating officer of Family Resources Inc. in Pinellas Park, which will receive more than $5-million in marriage-education funding over the next five years, the largest federal grant in the state.

"Five years ago, I probably wouldn't have applied for it, the way it was coming out and the politics behind it. But I can certainly see how there's a lot of advantages to having these services and de-stigmatizing them."

The pilot program that Stephanie and Mohamed joined is part of a federally funded research project teaching relationship skills to low-income couples in Florida and a handful of other states since 2005. In Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, it is run by Healthy Families Florida, a state-funded child abuse prevention program.

Couples who are unmarried and have a child together or married since their child's conception attend group relationship classes, working through modules with titles like "Two Sides to Every Fight" and "When Endless Fights Turn Harmful."

Financial incentives

They get intensive help finding jobs and solving money problems because strained finances are a key cause of fights. The program put $500 toward Stephanie and Mohamed's apartment, they said, and gave them gift cards for Best Buy and Bath & Body Works to reward their attendance.

"It's actually like they're paying us to go to it," Mohamed said. "But if they said, 'You have to pay for the program,' I think I would, because the benefits that we get from the program, for us as a couple, it's well worth it."

But the program is working against long odds. Bobbie-Jo Spada and Kevin Sayre recently completed three and a half months of relationship classes in Orlando. A certificate hangs on the wall of their modest concrete block house, but after three and a half years as a couple and two children together they don't seem any closer to marriage.

"He thinks it will ruin the relationship," said Bobbie-Jo, 24. "We don't even discuss it anymore."

Compared to other struggling couples, their stability is heartening. Kevin, 28, owns his house and has a steady job as a heating and air conditioning mechanic. Bobbie-Jo dropped out of high school at 15, but now spends her days patiently doling out potato sticks and toys to her son, daughter and niece.

In marriage, though, they have no obvious role models. Bobbie-Jo's parents fought violently, she said. Kevin's mother left his father when Kevin was six months old; his stepfather committed suicide.

Bobbie-Jo is still hopeful. On a recent afternoon, she acknowledged she would be lost without Kevin. But she wants a mark of their commitment.

"I don't want to be a girlfriend for the rest of my life," she said. "The way I look at it is, I've already had two of your kids. I've been here for three years. I'm not going anywhere. I think a marriage proposal would be nice."

Closer to the altar

Stephanie and Mohamed seem closer to marriage, but they aren't there yet.

Mohamed dropped out of high school, got his GED and makes $14.50 an hour as a cable tech. He somehow manages monthly payments on a sleek silver Jaguar, yet is so frustrated by money problems that he said he sometimes feels like putting his fist through the wall.

Stephanie makes $13.42 an hour as a surgical tech at a local hospital; she plans to start nursing school in the spring. When she got bored in high school, she would list her goals, a tribute to a mother who "always told me you can do anything you want to do," she said. Having a baby out of wedlock wasn't on the list. Neither was getting married at 22.

"I questioned myself a lot about, 'Do I need to be with him,' " Stephanie said. "My mom raised me as a single parent. Why do I need him?"

It was Mohamed who pushed to stay together, despite their fights.

"I don't want to be the guy who has a kid with one person and another kid with another person," he said. "Now that I have a kid, this is the person I want to spend my life with."

A public misstep

On a recent afternoon, their home visitor, a motherly 44-year-old named Ada Miranda, advised them about when to feed cereal to their 4-month-old daughter, Brianna Ashley, and how to treat her eczema. Ada admired pictures from the previous Saturday, when Stephanie and Mohamed had skipped relationship class to go to a friend's wedding.

"Ooh, you look gorgeous in that picture!" Ada said, gazing at Mohamed in a dark suit and Stephanie in a white and gold dress. "You guys look like you could get married."

No one said anything.

"So the wedding was good for you guys?" Ada asked.

"It was good to a point," Mohamed said. "I did something wrong. I don't really want to talk about it."

The wedding had upset him. He and Stephanie were deadlocked over what kind of ceremony to have since she was Christian and he Muslim. He watched his friend's marriage wistfully, wishing for one of his own.

At the reception afterward, things got worse. When it came time for Stephanie to drive them home, he yelled and banged on the dashboard. She got scared.

"To me it was like a bad ghost came along," she said.

The next morning, Mohamed drove to Target and bought Pampers. He stopped at Starbucks to pick up a caramel macchiato for Stephanie. He knocked on his own front door like a stranger.

Stephanie could tell he was trying to make up. She thought about the lessons they had learned in the group, especially the "gentle startup," a technique to keep difficult conversations from spinning into fights.

What do you have to say for yourself? she asked.

They talked for an hour. At one point, he got angry, but he realized he was wrong and calmed down. He started the conversation again, "gently, without any yelling or anything," he said, "and we resolved it without any yelling or anything."

They didn't discuss the fight with Ada, and she didn't press them. Instead, she turned to Brianna.

"Look at how comfortable she is with you guys," Ada said. "Can you imagine yourselves without her right now?"

"It would be kind of boring," Stephanie said.

"Life wouldn't be life without her," Mohamed said, drawing Brianna close. "The day she was born, that's when my life started."

By the time Saturday rolled around, the fight seemed to have faded. Before relationship class, Mohamed vacuumed the apartment and laid out frilly pink baby clothes for Brianna. Stephanie bathed her and taped on a fresh diaper.

On the kitchen counter lay a list of goals Stephanie hoped to accomplish in the new year.

1) Start school by May

2) Save money at least $1000 by end of the year

3) Plan wedding for Sept. 2007

Epilogue

Mohamed surprised Stephanie with a diamond ring on New Year's Eve.

They plan to marry Sept. 15 on a cruise ship, in a ceremony they can agree on.

Times researchers Angie Drobnic Holan and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Vanessa Gezari can be reached at vgezari@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8803.

 

 

 

[Last modified January 6, 2007, 21:01:13]


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