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Commission makes 12 recommendations to help Wisconsin families

Gov. Scott Walker addressed the Future of the Families Commission in January. The commission issued 12 recommendations Thursday.

Gov. Scott Walker’s family commission is calling for a series of state law and policy changes to alleviate poverty by strengthening families.

The Future of the Family Commission on Thursday recommended the state expand taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools, offer marriage tax credits, increase access to quality child care, and teach financial and family planning skills in school and parenting and relationship skills in prison.

The commission also suggested that Wisconsin schools employ and promote the “Success Sequence,” an idea promoted by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C. think tank, that emphasizes graduating from high school, getting a job, and turning 21 and getting married before having children.

The recommendations could factor into Walker’s upcoming budget proposal.

“Governor Walker thanks members of the commission for their hard work and looks forward to reviewing their recommendations,” Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said. “The governor is committed to helping strengthen families as we move forward into the new year and legislative session.”

Walker created the 12-member commission in January as a way “to identify challenges and barriers families face and to discover solutions on how we can help them overcome those hurdles.”

The commission’s 94-page report — resulting from five meetings — doesn’t include a price tag for its recommendations.

It identified 19 different challenges facing families, including: a lack of support for men’s roles in forming and sustaining families, too many barriers to marriage, unplanned pregnancies, lack of family planning, lack of quality education for high-risk youth, inadequate adult literacy and math skills, insufficient supply of high-quality early childhood education, few positive cultural messages about marriage and cultural messages that sexual activity disconnected from a committed relationship has no consequence.

12 recommendations

To address those challenges, the commission made 12 recommendations, including:

Increase the “demand” for marriage by removing barriers such as marriage license fees and tax structures that create a disincentive for two-parent households; considering marriage and child tax credits; developing healthy relationship/marriage readiness programs; reframing the concept of marriage for teens and young adults and providing divorce intervention services.

Educate young people about prevention of unplanned pregnancy by highlighting family planning and opportunities available by delaying sexual activity.

Provide in-home education programs, including relationship skills, for new fathers.

Teach financial and life skills in high school, such as the cost of child support and the “Success Sequence” — which prescribes graduating from high school, getting a job and waiting until marriage and age 21 before having children.

Increase high school students’ exposure to technical fields, especially in low-income communities.

Promote school choice/taxpayer-funded vouchers for private schools.

Align transportation resources with available jobs.

Provide support for offenders to re-enter society.

Increase access to affordable, quality early childhood education.

Develop and promote positive cultural messages for both men and women about healthy relationships.

Provide programs for incarcerated men that build their skills in the areas of parenting, marriage and finance.

Encourage community-based social support networks for families.

Lawrence Berger, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at UW-Madison, said the report addresses many of the key issues associated with family formation and stability, particularly by emphasizing the roles of men and fathers. However, he said he is less optimistic about the emphasis on marriage promotion and healthy marriage programs because the current evidence indicates these programs have not been effective.

Marriage programs ineffective?

“This is not to say that effective programs could not be developed or that we should not continue experimenting with such programs, but the fact of the matter is that evaluations of existing programs have not demonstrated that they are effective,” said Berger, who testified before the commission.

He took issue with the report not recommending making long-acting reversible contraceptives such as intrauterine devices and implants more easily available to low-income women, something he deemed potentially “game changing in terms of unplanned births, which account for the majority of nonmarital births, and associated family complexity and instability.”

He also said it didn’t address financial support for those who are unable to work or face heavy barriers to employment, such as low education and skills, long periods of disconnection from the labor market, limited connection to social welfare programs, and criminal records.

“I would have liked to see a more explicit focus on how best to support these individuals and families not only to move into the labor market, but to also access sufficient economic resources during the process of doing so,” Berger said. “This, too, is crucial for family functioning and for best enabling parents to contribute to their children both financially and in terms of high quality caregiving.”

Julaine Appling, president of conservative Wisconsin Family Action, said she supported the commission’s recommendations, particularly on marriage.

“Their recommendations are right in line with what we believe must be done,” Appling said. “I trust the state Legislature will utilize many of these recommendations and will make this a very high priority this session.”

Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to accurately reflect the source of the "Success Sequence."

Walker created the 12-member (Future of the Family Commission) in January as a way “to identify challenges and barriers families face and to discover solutions on how we can help them overcome those hurdles.” The commission’s 94-page report ... identified 19 different challenges facing families.

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Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.