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Is Marriage Dying?

For better or worse: Marriage promotion, cohabitation and American politics.

This article originally appeared on the  L.A. Review of Books.

Marriage, by the numbers: In 2002, the Bush administration diverted over $100 million dollars from existing welfare programs to create the Healthy Marriage Initiative, a national program to disseminate the importance of matrimony. Displaced funds included $14 million from child welfare, $6.1 million from a child support enforcement program, $9 million worth of support for refugees, and $40 million from a development strategies program focusing on Native Americans. Three years later, the US government sanctioned up to $150 million more per year to support “healthy marriage and responsible programs.” A change of political parties has not tempered the flow: in the last fiscal year, Congress approved $75 million in spending on marriage promotion activities and $75 million for responsible fatherhood initiatives. This, of course, does not include the cost of marriage to individuals themselves (the average American wedding costs over $27,000, according to Reuters). That’s a lot to spend on an institution with a known failure rate of about 50 percent.

Today, Americans are getting married less and less; the numbers of unmarried couples and single parents have risen. And yet, marriage — idealized, perfected marriage, marriage “worth fighting for” — has never had such a strong hold on our political imagination. However much the practice may be waning on the ground, the concept of marriage has found a revived energy in the rhetoric of policy-makers and pundits on both the Right and the Left. Cultural conservatives rally around preserving a nostalgic image of the nuclear family, those good old days when a man could walk through the door to a pot roast and a set of smiling faces. Meanwhile, the most exciting political announcement of the last year for Democrats was President Obama’s concession that gay men and women, too, might one day get married. The more insistently Americans seem to be leaving the institution behind, the stronger its purchase on our language and public policy goals. Why? Two books help illustrate the persistence of these ideals.


In Oklahoma, 32 percent of adults are divorced, 10 points higher than the national average. In 2000, the state has diverted 10 percent of its welfare money (a total of $10 million) to finance a statewide marriage initiative. The program’s listed goals would be to reduce the high number of divorces in Oklahoma by one-third, teach citizens about the benefits of marriage, and encourage cohabiting Oklahoma couples to marry. For Governor Frank Keating, who put the initiative into place, the program’s possibilities didn’t stop there. “The marriage initiative,” he wrote, would, “make our state rich. That simple.” To strengthen marriage, he contended, would be to create a stronger and more stable economic base for the family unit, and by extension, for the state itself.

As the sociologist Melanie Heath shows in her fine-tuned “ One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America,” Oklahoma’s program takes several forms. At the core of the program is Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), a workshop given free of charge over the course of a few weeks to Oklahomans looking to improve their relationships. The audience for these courses is mostly heterosexual, white, and middle class. But the program’s variants proliferate across the state. There’s CPREP, a Christian version; Prison PREP, taught to inmates; Employee Relationship Enhancement (ERE), for Native American reservations; another for high school students; and a special course taught to welfare recipients, compulsory in exchange for aide but not, according to its supporters, “required” (more on that later).

Central to the PREP is the concept of the “marriage cure,” which holds that marriage is the solution to poverty. As Heath explains, the 1990s saw a growth of a “neo-family values” movement that used the language of political science and statistics to push the importance of matrimony as a solution to poverty. Research on the links between matrimony and economics, child welfare, and education began to emerge from secular research branches like the National Marriage Project, housed at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values. Marriage, according to one such report, “is an important social good, associated with an impressively broad array of positive outcomes for children and adults alike.” Never mind that the basic questions of correlation and causation remain totally unquestioned; such research confidently presents marriage as a panacea for all social ills: “Married people” — for whatever reason — “are happier, healthier, and better off financially.”

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