Another Perspective

A Marriage Health Advisory

Can $1.5 billion buy bliss? That depends on the buyer.

By 1.28.04

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WASHINGTON -- In 2002, over a third of all births in the United States were to unwed mothers. About 40 percent of recent first marriages end in divorce and the prospects for second marriages are even dimmer. In several American subcultures such as inner city D.C., wedlock is the rare exception. So we now have a perfectly good (i.e., wretched) laboratory from which social scientists can discover how much marriage once did for us.

The results fairly overwhelmingly favor getting hitched. Marriage helps fathers love their children. Even the best-intentioned unmarried fathers have a much harder time caring for their kids. They move in and out of the children's lives rather than providing stable, reliable support; they have children by other women who make conflicting claims on their time, resources, and loyalty.

Marriage helps women regulate their relationships with men. In low marriage communities, women haven't been liberated from patriarchal shackles. Instead, they often hold men to very low standards, requiring little in the way of commitment before they have sex or after they get pregnant, since holding out for anything more is viewed as wildly unrealistic. The father is the first man most women come to know; he provides the first model for what she can ask of a man, what she can expect. If he is absent or only intermittently present, her expectations shrivel.

And let's not forget marriage significantly reduces crime and dependence on government. Boys want to become men, and when they don't know how to achieve manhood as responsible fathers, they will seek it through promiscuity, violence, and the sense of "tribe" provided by gangs. When mothers cannot rely on fathers to take care of their children, government must replace daddy.

ALL OF WHICH is a long way of establishing what should be obvious: Marriage is a public issue. And now, a major marriage proposal has reached the Senate: the Healthy Marriage Initiative, a portion of the Temporary Aid for Needy Families reauthorization bill which would provide $1.5 billion -- $200 million a year for five years from the federal government, the rest from state matching funds -- for programs to promote marriage. The funds will be split between state agencies and private nonprofits, and can be used to develop programs for just about any group that might desire marriage education: engaged couples, unwed parents, high school students, people in troubled marriages.

This is not a radical step. Both state and federal governments have been funding marriage education for high school students and adult couples considering marriage for years.

But is it the government's job? The initiative has come under heavy fire as an intrusive, big-government ploy to propagandize reluctant couples into tying the knot. The initial press was overwhelmingly negative, with editorial headlines like "Heartless Marriage Plans" and "A Dubious Marriage Initiative." Robert Reich argued in the New York Times that marriage rates were driven by economic conditions, thus changing people's beliefs about marriage was a waste of time and money.

This perspective -- that women don't marry because their children's fathers don't have jobs -- neglects both the economic benefits of marriage (sharing a household, providing greater stability and support) and the fact that many of the fathers do have jobs. It also fails to acknowledge that having sex but not getting married because you believe you can't afford it is the perfect recipe for staying poor.

Criticism from the right characterizes the marriage initiative as just one among many "compassionate conservative" expansions of government spending and influence under President George W. Bush. Yet strong marriages reduce government dependence and help to reduce crime and other social costs as well. Strengthening marriage will make limited government both more appealing and more likely.

Critics of a more civil libertarian bent focus on the mistaken belief that couples will be "coerced" into marrying, but participation in any of the programs (with the exception, I assume, of any high school classes) is entirely voluntary. No one would have to participate in a marriage-education class to get a welfare check, for example.

THERE ARE STILL pitfalls ahead before the Healthy Marriage Initiative can become more than just another symbolic gesture. The proposal right now is necessarily vague; the details will be hashed out at the state and local levels. And it's those details, decided in hundreds of scattered conference rooms out of the public view, that will determine whether the initiative is enough of a success to justify the time and energy the marriage movement has spent promoting it.

It's understandable that the initiative's supporters wanted to operate on the federal level: As with Willie Sutton's famous explanation of why he robbed banks, that's where the money is. But fellow marriage activists didn't seem prepared for the media firestorm that greeted the initiative. Intensely political, partisan media coverage is a fact of life for any program of the federal government.

It's no coincidence that the news stories that have treated the initiative more sympathetically have generally focused on small-scale, local programs. On the national level, anything, especially a "values" issue, becomes chum in media-infested waters. Supporters of the initiative could reply that it's harder to coordinate efforts and receive funding at the state and local levels, or via charity rather than government monies; but in the end, which would really have proven harder: passing a more-than-symbolic Healthy Marriage Initiative, or promoting and supporting lots of local initiatives?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I do know that the marriage initiative could justly be supported by anyone who favors limited government, stronger families, and reducing poverty. Strengthening marriage in poor communities, in fact, would be far more empowering than a welfare check.

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About the Author

Eve Tushnet blogs on the Catholic channel of Patheos.com.