Why Welfare Officials Ignore Marital Status

Salt Lake Tribune/June 28, 1998
By Holly Mullen

Policy-makers who ignore polygamy and its ramifications for families are guilty of a ``cop-out,'' says Roz McGee, executive director of Utah Children, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Salt Lake City.

``We are in the process of gathering information to assess whether Utah Children should be speaking out on behalf of children in poverty who also are living in polygamy,'' McGee said. ``This is the classic multifaceted problem. . . . The effects these [polygamous] relationships have on children are enormous.''

In Colorado City, just across the Utah border in Arizona, nearly 61 percent of the households live under the federal poverty level. In Hildale, on the Utah side, 37 percent of the families live in poverty.

Yet solutions are elusive. Academicians who spend their time rethinking welfare programs -- and searching for solutions to multigenerational poverty -- admit that the issue of polygamy and government benefits is one they had never considered before.

``That is absolutely fascinating,'' says Shawn Hampton, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, which oversees the Medicaid program. ``But if the wives qualify under federal poverty guidelines, then the department is mandated to authorize the benefits.''

Although he acknowledges it is a ``slippery slope,'' one authority on ethics and government makes a fairness argument -- that those who insist on practicing polygamy should be willing to accept all the financial and social responsibilities that go along with it.

Michael Josephson, president of the nonpartisan Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, Calif., recognizes that the personal responsibility claim could be made for any welfare recipient.

``But we can draw a meaningful distinction here,'' he says. ``In a two-parent family, there's an inherent limitation to the number of children two people can have. With polygamy, those numbers continue to grow, promoting large numbers of children without being accountable. Generally, it is unfair and unresponsible for anyone to say, `I'm going to do something I want to do, and you must pay for it.' ''

The other side of the equation, he admits, are the children -- and like all human beings, they have no say on the home they are born into.

``It's tough,'' Josephson adds. ``Almost everyone acts on the caring issue, but there are issues of responsibility here, too.

``If these people are decent and good, and they know they can't support their children, they should stop having them. If they won't do that, society must draw a line.''

Some Utahns agree.

According to a recent Salt Lake Tribune poll of 1,007 adult residents of Salt Lake and Davis counties, 70 percent said government aid to polygamous families should be limited. And 54 percent favor enforcement of laws against polygamy.

Josephson doubts the government could prevent the practice of plural marriage -- even if it cracked down on the practitioners and cut their benefits.

``It's an interesting way of life to say the least, and probably quite unique compared to other populations receiving Medicaid and WIC,'' adds Michele Horaney, acting manager of Stanford University's Hoover Institution, a conservative political think tank.

Indeed. In the seven Intermountain West states studied by The Salt Lake Tribune, tribal reservations and core urban neighborhoods were the main recipients of Medicaid and WIC benefits. But those communities also are traditionally hardest hit by unemployment, substance abuse, and poor literacy and education levels.

In Hildale, 34 percent of the adult population (over age 25) has completed high school; 41 percent of adults in Colorado City have finished high school.

Because the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints serving polygamists in Colorado City and Hildale subscribes to tenets similar to those of the traditional LDS Church, addictions to alcohol and drugs that plague other poverty-riddled communities are all but nonexistent.

So, in these two communities that belie the usual statistics of poverty in America -- 99 percent of their residents are white, unemployment is virtually nil and fathers have not abandoned households -- the final question may be whether welfare here helps young people develop into productive citizens, or creates a community dependent on the government.

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