When I first applied for welfare at 6 months pregnant, with little to no job experience, I was denied assistance due to the fact that I had $7 too much in my bank account. I married the father of my child. Even married with two incomes we were poor. My family qualified for food stamps and Medicaid.

After a year of being belittled, manipulated, harassed, physically assaulted and verbally abused, I fled a violent home. The day my ex-husband hit me and shoved me across the room while holding our son, I left and never went back. I wanted my son to grow up in a healthy and safe home so he could thrive; I didn’t want him to witness violence and despair every day of his life.

I began receiving welfare and going to college. While in college I had a work-study job in a field that I knew I wanted to pursue employment in after completing my degree. The education and experience I gained ultimately helped me move out of poverty. Marriage was not the solution to my poverty or my son’s poverty. If I had not left that violent home, I can assure you I would not be here today; I would have died.

This story is reflective of many other women on welfare today. In the past 12 months, over 50 percent of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation’s advocacy calls, which are specifically focused on welfare, have been domestic-violence related.

Welfare offices are focused on case load reduction and keeping people off of welfare and that puts women attempting to leave violent homes in a situation no one should ever have to face. Women facing violence should never have to make the choice between the security of food on the table for their children and continued violence.

Far too many women in poverty are facing this devastating situation. National statistics reflect Montana’s experience – as many as 60 percent of women on welfare have experienced domestic violence in their adult life.

Marriage promotion will not help these women in crisis leave; it will only serve as yet another barrier to leaving and that will not, under any circumstances, solve the poverty they face. Similarly, diverting welfare funds away from direct assistance for families into marriage-promotion classes in high schools, abstinence-only education, divorce and pre-marital counseling and advertising campaigns touting the benefits of marriage targeted at low-income families will not reduce poverty. Such efforts merely side-step the very real and complex issues surrounding poverty in our country.

For example, along with the rise in domestic violence, Montana, one of many rural states represented on this committee, also has a child poverty rate of 21 percent, the fastest growing poverty rate in the country. Our wages are 48th in the nation and we have the highest number of people in the country working more than one job to make ends meet. People are working two and three jobs and they are still poor.

Marriage is not the solution to poverty in Montana. Women are facing domestic violence at alarming rates and wages are so low in Montana that two-parent households are just as poor as single-parent households.

Nationally, the situation is similar – 40 percent of women on Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) are or have been married and 40 percent of children in poverty are in two-parent families. These factors point out that there is no cookie-cutter approach to welfare reform and building stronger families.

It is time to move beyond oversimplified, band-aid approaches to welfare reform, like marriage promotion and increased work hours for families in need, and start focusing on family strengthening by ensuring reasonable work participation goals, rather than diverting resources to “keep families busy,” and supporting the work families are engaged in with supports like child care, housing and Medicaid, and protection from domestic violence. In addition, the time clock must be suspended when families are doing what they are supposed to.

Time clocks are counterproductive and must be stopped when families are working to meet their requirements for assistance. These are the measures that will provide needed assistance and support for families working to move out of poverty. Poverty is complex. Welfare reform must include policies that address that fact to strengthen families.

Polling data shows that the American public is in favor of such supportive policies. A recent poll conducted by the National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support found that 62 percent of Americans surveyed cited work support for people moving from welfare to good jobs as the top priority for Congress in reauthorizing TANF. In contrast, merely 5 percent cited marriage promotion as a priority.

Coming from a rural state, one that has recently experienced a dramatic rise in our welfare rolls after a drastic drop in 1996, it is clear that we need to take a more comprehensive approach to welfare reform, one that will support families to move out of poverty rather than encourage low-wage employment that keeps people coming back to welfare to make ends meet.

TANF Reauthorization is the perfect opportunity to create policy that addresses this dynamic by ensuring that families have access to quality education and training programs, support while engaged in such programs, options to secure care for their young children and proven paths to jobs that pay well. Such measures will build stronger families.

States need support to address the needs of their poor citizens, not a boost in bureaucracy and oversimplified approaches like marriage promotion. Policies must ensure families have options and protection when leaving violent homes and approach family strengthening through actual poverty reduction measures that have been proven to work, rather than involving government in our private lives through economically coerced marriage.

It is essential to hear from the people who have been directly impacted by poverty. Our experience as a group that creates poverty alleviation policy in Montana certainly speaks to the fact that policies created with the input of the people who will be most impacted by them are the most successful.

Kate Kahan is the executive director for Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, a Montana-based organization focusing on poverty issues. This column is taken from Kahan’s testimony before the Senate Finance Committee.