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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.
 
 
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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.

 
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