Sex & Relationships

You May Kiss the Bride: Government Is Still Pushing Marriage

Social conservatives scored a victory when the Obama Administration decided to keep a Bush program promoting marriage.

It might seem unlikely, but one of the latest youth-oriented multimedia ad campaigns popping up on Facebook, radio stations and the Internet is an ambitious public-education initiative. The goal? To prepare teens and twentysomethings to succeed in marriage.

Consider this public service announcement:

Sounds of man snoring, followed by female voice: "Hear that? That’s my husband sleeping … soundly. He may not always be charming, but he’s always my prince."

Narrator voiceover: "For tips on navigating the highs and lows of a healthy marriage, visit TwoOfUs.org. You’ll find advice on managing money, disagreeing without fighting and … [snoring sounds] keeping the spark of romance in your relationship."

This announcement was brought to you by … you. The ad campaign was funded by the federal government under the Bush administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, a program that spends $100 million a year to promote the benefits and teach the secrets of happy marriages.

And now it seems that the Bush marriage policies -- long derided by critics as sexist, impractical, intrusive and a diversion of funds from more meaningful anti-poverty measures -- have won the support of the new president.

The recently released Obama budget would preserve the five-year marriage initiative, although Congress still could eliminate it in appropriations. The initiative awards grants to demystify wedlock to teens, low-income populations, the public at large, married couples, singles looking to marry, engaged couples and couples who recently had or are expecting a baby. One program even targets incarcerated parents.

The programs do not provide individualized couples therapy but rather are seminar-type events conducted in classroom settings, using curricula that emphasize relationship staples such as communication, compromise and romance.

Launched in 2006, the initiative grew out of Clinton-era welfare reforms enacted with the explicit purpose of getting recipients of federal assistance to work, marry and establish two-parent homes. Alarmed by rising out-of-wedlock births and lack of a father presence among poor and minority families, social conservatives argued that getting poor people hitched would offer children a more permanent commitment, if not two combined incomes, and thus greater stability.

But opponents have seen the marriage program, alongside other Bush social policies such as abstinence-only education, as efforts to impose virtue rather than sincere attempts to help people out of poverty. Critics contend that the marriage programs hijack federal assistance monies that would be better spent on job training and other more direct anti-poverty measures.

"My argument is marriage doesn’t end poverty," said Jennifer Tucker, vice president at the Center for Women Policy Studies. In addition to practical considerations, Tucker opposes the expenditure on principle: "This money is supposed to be for people who are poor."

Opponents have also maintained that the policies devalue single mothers, might encourage women to stay with their husbands even in cases of abuse, and fail to promote self-reliance. In response to their criticisms, policymakers under the Bush administration adopted the language of "healthy marriage" rather than marriage under any circumstances and required grant recipients to flag potential cases of spousal abuse.

A Look at the Programs

Who runs the marriage programs, and how are they administered? They are often faith-based organizations, community groups and educational institutions that have won federal grants of anywhere from $200,000 to $2 million to combine instruction in relationship skills with the celebration of legally sanctioned, long-term commitment. 

In Tennessee, one grant recipient sponsors marriage fairs and offers complimentary dinners and movies to couples who take marriage-education classes. In California, the Dibble Institute won a $550,000 grant this year to bring relationship-skills classes to teens by making the curriculum available and training teachers to use it. The lessons have been taught in approximately 400 schools and to 14,000 students.

"Our organization is all about helping teens learn how to navigate their romantic lives in a healthy way," said institute Director Kay Reed.

As part of its public-education campaign, the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center has created the Web site TwoOfUs.org, which offers tips on dealing with money, conflict and romance in long-term relationships. The tasteful page design and content of the site seem deliberately feminine -- a recent lead article was on the impact of mothers and the challenges of being a supermom (though the discussion boards are, weirdly, dominated by men voicing disdain for marriage and women).

Beyond the Feds: State Marriage Policies

Even if the marriage program were to be eliminated by Congress, activists have made initial strides in securing continued government support at the state level.

The "1 percent solution" is a campaign organized by Chris Gersten, a former official at the federal agency that administers the marriage grants and currently the chairman of the Fatherhood and Marriage Leadership Institute. Under the FAMLI "1 percent" campaign, some states have pledged to dedicate funds to marriage-education programs, usually setting aside a small percentage of their federal block grants for public assistance. Nine states have dedicated the funds, with mostly Republican states participating, although New Mexico recently joined up.

Another policy initiative to preserve marriage is to make divorce harder, which is an effort under way already in Texas. There, under a new law, marriage licenses are cheaper to couples who take marriage-education courses before the wedding. The sponsor of that legislation also has proposed a bill that would require one person in a couple seeking a no-fault divorce to attend 10 hours of marriage-crisis education.

Further, leaders of the marriage-education movement are seeking to broaden their coalition, a significant portion of which is devoutly Christian and traditionalist, by reaching out to minorities, who have been targeted in the federal grant programs. (Hispanic and black rates of childbirth outside marriage are higher than whites’.)

"My effort has been to focus on members of the Congressional Black Caucus. A lot of the grantees are African American," said Gersten. In fact, FAMLI’s home page announces, "URGENT… We need to build ties with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in order to save the federal TANF Healthy Marriage and Fatherhood Funding."

Persuading Obama

Soon after the change of presidency, conservative activists began making the case to save the federal marriage initiatives. In a public letter to Obama, then still president-elect, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation cited a paragraph from The Audacity of Hope that seems to endorse government-sponsored marriage promotion.

"Policies that strengthen marriage for those who choose it and that discourage unintended births outside of marriage are sensible goals to pursue," Obama wrote in 2006. Three years later, Rector applauded the president. "You were exactly right," he said in his letter.

Other activists, meanwhile, have been demanding modifications to the marriage policy, if not outright termination.

"We call upon the Obama administration to make ending poverty, using proven methods, a top priority. … We call for an end to federal spending on unproven initiatives such as marriage promotion," wrote a coalition of academics and activists representing the interests of gays and lesbians, welfare recipients and unmarried couples.

Other experts criticize the marriage programs for failing to address the needs of low-income parents who either divorced or moved on to new relationships, and are thus not going to marry each other. A pivotal study of low-income families found that 59 percent of unmarried parents have children by more than one partner.

This kind of relationship turnover is a serious problem, according to Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round, who said that Americans divorce and remarry at higher rates than in other industrial countries. Repartnering and remarrying are often a source of instability in American children’s lives.

"Marriage is a good thing for kids. But if you already have a child and have broken up, we should not be telling you to hurry up and get married to someone else," Cherlin said.

He added that countries where marriage is not as highly venerated as in the U.S. still manage to foster stable family lives -- and that stability is as important a message as matrimony.

"Here’s an amazing statistic: A child living with married parents in the U.S. has a higher risk of seeing his parents break up than a child living with unmarried parents in Sweden," Cherlin said. "There’s a danger in making marriage the only emphasis in our family policies."

One danger is in focusing on marriage at the expense of thinking about divorce.

"You cannot avoid the fact that people are divorcing and remarrying," said Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History. Couples who call it quits but are still trying to raise children need relationship guidelines, too, she said. "People today enter a variety of caregiving relationships, and we need to pay much more attention to strengthening their ability to keep the commitments they make or exit them in less-destructive ways when they do exit."

Marriage Momentum?

Even without federal support, there is evidence that the "marriage-education movement," as its leadership prefers for it to be known, is a gaining momentum. For example, the military is offering marriage education to soldiers at an unprecedented scale, in part to respond to rising divorce rates that are believed to be the result of multiple deployments.

Another sign of interest in improving conjugal bliss is the movie Fireproof, about a struggling marriage, with a heavily Christian message. Fireproof was the most successful independent film made in 2008. And in November, when a Texas pastor challenged married couples in his church to have sex for seven consecutive days, he made national headlines.

Meanwhile, an annual convention sponsored by the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, while expecting a lower turnout because of the economy this July, has drawn as many as 2,700 attendees in recent years. This year features 176 presenters; sessions range from "Strengthening Marriage in the Black Community" to "Sex and Romance in the Biblical Marriage" to "Divorce Reform Legislative Strategies," along with classes on marriage skills, fidelity and parenting. Other sessions discuss the role of marriage-education programs in workplace wellness initiatives and health care reform efforts. (The topic of gay marriage is not on the conference agenda, and the coalition does not take a position on it.)

The coalition is a grassroots movement and not a recipient of federal aid. Its director, Diane Sollee, said marriage education is not rooted in religion but rather research into the best practices of successful couples. Further, she said, there is ample evidence that marriage is linked to better financial and physical well-being.

Not everyone is convinced, however. Census data show that people are marrying in declining numbers and out-of-wedlock births are rising, despite research findings that Americans continue to hold marriage in high regard.

"Marriage has become a powerful symbol of leading a successful personal life in America. But we evaluate our marriages in personal, individualistic terms," said Cherlin. "And we feel justified in leaving if we’re unhappy."

The question is whether a government pro-marriage campaign can dissuade people from leaving, while getting more people hitched and happy about it -- and whether it’s appropriate to try.

Amy DePaul is a writer and college instructor who lives in Irvine, Calif. Her articles have appeared in the Washington Post and many other newspapers.
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