I’m a “dot connector” by inclination; I generally network people and resources, but old questions with new answers that have yielded encouraging results are a great thing to connect as well.

In September 2004, the Manhattan Institute hosted an event intended to revisit 1996 welfare reform legislation results with the hope of positive lessons learned and applied for then pending reauthorization. (The fact that such was continually delayed is yet another matter.) “Whither Welfare Reform: Lessons from the Wisconsin Experience,” included panelists Jason DeParle of the New York Times, Lawrence Mead, NYU, and Jason Turner, Visiting Fellow in Welfare Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Turner had been Governor Tommy Thompson’s policy architect for Wisconsin’s largely lauded welfare reform innovations.

Question: “What would be the one critical reform that each of you would institute to bring men back into the family?” Mead suggested improved welfare work programs connected to child support; Turner argued for opportunity as well as punishment in prison, connecting parole to enforced work.

Grand Rapids’ Cascade Engineering is a stellar example of innovative business-public agency partnerships charged to place low income workers in decent jobs with opportunities. Prison Fellowship contractor Innerchange Freedom Initiative developed a re-entry program that facilitates and empowers an incarcerated man’s regeneration and reconnection to his family. The Christian Reformed Church is spearheading related work with strong direction from Grand Rapids’ leaders. Mead and Turner would be pleased.

Another productive strategy to reconnect men to their families has gained momentum in neighborhoods where local knowledge and accountability provide big leverage: healthy marriage initiatives. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled Dr. Wade Horn, head of the federal Administration for Children and Families, who “has employed the zeal of an ideologue and the discipline of an academic to inject marriage promotion into a host of government programs … ” More than 200 programs across the country seek to change attitudes toward marriage, encouraging teenagers to aspire to healthy marriages and bringing relationship skills to couples of all ages.

Research indicates that marriage education works for middle-class white families; new studies will determine if the same holds for poor, nonwhite couples. The early research coming out of Healthy Marriages Grand Rapids in its work with low income, urban residents is very encouraging. Recent unofficial reports from a Grand Rapids donor who partnered with Horn’s ACF marriage work indicate that a significant number finish the programming and that importantly, neighborhood trainers are ‘moving out’ further in the community to share the skills building tools.

As we ponder the season, I’m thankful for Grand Rapids business and social entrepreneurs who put their talents to work to bring men back to the family.