News & Politics

Who Wants to Marry a Marriage Initiative?

Bush's 'healthy marriages' initiative shores up the president's conservative credentials after a year in which Texas and Massachusetts courts handed down rulings in favor of gay rights.
The Bush administration's $1.5 billion drive to promote marriage among poor people is being received with joy on the religious right as a sign that George W. Bush is still their man. But the news is meeting a cooler reception everywhere else on the political spectrum. To most on the left and even some on the right, the marriage initiative sounds now just like it did when it emerged three years ago as a component of a new Republican welfare system: patronizing and wrongheaded.

First aired by President Bush in early 2001 as a cure for the poverty among many single mothers, the marriage initiative is included as a rider in the welfare reauthorization bill, which renews welfare programs for another five years. That means it's almost certainly going to become law. When it does, it will for five years mandate $200 million a year in federal money as well as $100 million a year in state funds to be spent on programs teaching low-income people the skills to enter and sustain "healthy marriages."

Half the federal money will go to state agencies. The other half, or $100 million each year, will be up for grabs by religious groups and nonprofits. Grant applicants have considerable leeway in both the form and content of their projects, and the programs may target high school students, single mothers, engaged couples, unmarried couples with children or married couples on the rocks. The only criterion is that the participants be heterosexual.

Politically Driven

The timing and nature of the announcement are clearly driven by politics. Offered up to the religious right as the Bush reelection campaign starts in earnest, the proposal shores up the president's conservative credentials after a year in which Texas and Massachusetts courts handed down significant rulings in favor of gay rights. Outraged religious conservatives want presidential support for a constitutional ban on gay marriage, but Bush has waffled on giving it. This vanilla endorsement of "healthy marriage" could spare his having to venture into those waters while mollifying a key constituency.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign gets to offer socially conservative Democrats an alternative to Howard Dean, who as governor of Vermont signed the country's first civil union law in 2000 granting most of the rights of marriage to same-sex couples.

The contradictions at work are not lost on the people at the Human Rights Campaign, a bipartisan gay rights group.

"We think it's ironic that the administration is spending $1.5 billion to support this [marriage initiative] while at the same time considering a constitutional amendment that would deny the security and stability and protection of marriage to literally millions of same-sex couples who are in lifelong devoted, committed relationships and want to embrace those rights," said HRC spokesman Mark Shields.

That's a pretty good sound bite, all too rare where this initiative is concerned, according to Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit that advocates for the recognition and rights of nontraditional family structures.

"It's a very slippery kind of proposal to condemn," said Coontz, an Evergreen State College history professor. "The general for-public-consumption approach is it's apple pie: 'Of course we don't want to force people into marriage -- we just want to give extra money to programs that help people who do want to get married.'"

Nevertheless, progressives and libertarians alike see nightmarish figures when they look at the marriage initiative: Big Brother, the Bourgeois Moralizer, the Great Society-Attacker, the Stingy Darwinian Social Engineer, the Politically Pandering Money-Waster and the Crusader for the Inappropriate Introduction of Religion into State Affairs.

Yet the silence from Congressional Democrats has been deafening. Who wants to go on the record as "anti-marriage," especially during an election year, especially this one?

Marriage Ambassadors

Supporters claim the marriage initiative is rooted in two notions: that unmarried mothers are impoverished mothers and that two parents are better for kids than one. Coax the nation's mothers into marriage, the thinking goes, and the nation's children will be financially and emotionally better off. The federal government has already released millions of dollars in grants to community- and faith-based marriage education initiatives, many of which have focused on premarital counseling for engaged couples but are slowly entering the arena of marriage education for singles.

There are state-level precedents for this kind of activity. Oklahoma has had a marriage initiative since 1999, when then-Gov. Frank Keating created a $10 million program that sends forth "marriage ambassadors" to universities and churches to tout the benefits of their exemplary unions. Meanwhile, churches hold classes for women on how to get and keep a man through good communication skills (an enterprise that seems doomed by the unavailability of suitable men, judging from Katherine Boo's expertly rendered account in last August's New Yorker). The Oklahoma model has been imported to Florida. West Virginia has taken a more direct approach, offering $100 extra per month to low-income women who marry the fathers of their children.

None of the healthy marriage advocates interviewed for this story said they wish to force anyone into marriage.

"We don't say marriage is for everybody, and we don't try to get people to marry just because they had a baby together," said Rev. Jerome Warfield of Family Life Ministries of Metropolitan Detroit, which is even now selecting the grant writers who will make pitches to the federal government when the $1.5 billion initiative comes online. "We make sure marriage is a choice."

Healthy Marriage Grand Rapids, a Michigan group that received a $1.5 million federal grant in October, conducted a focus group to see whether unwed mothers were even interested in marriage (two-thirds were).

"There's enough independent interest that there's no need to coerce," said the group's executive director, Dr. Mark Eastburg. "This is all voluntary. And second, we're talking about healthy marriage, not marriage for marriage's sake. As a corollary to that, we're doing our best to screen for domestic violence, so if there are warning signs we can pick up on that."

Good intentions don't allay the serious concern that single mothers will be prodded into potentially abusive relationships. The National Organization for Women and other critics point out that some marriages are bad, and that even unions that don't result in outright abuse can be harmful.

Stephanie Coontz, in a paper co-written by University of Massachusetts economics professor Nancy Folbre, agrees that healthy two-parent families are best for kids. However, two-parent families aren't necessarily healthy. "Studies show a marriage marked by conflict, jealousy and anger is often worse for children's well-being than divorce or residence from birth in a stable single-parent family," the pair writes. Take-home message: a bad marriage is worse for kids than no marriage at all.

Faulty Logic

Critics also have attacked the logic underlying the entire proposal.

The marriage initiative is partly driven by recent census figures showing that 6 percent of two-parent families live in poverty, compared to 33 percent of single-parent families. But it's a chicken-and-egg thing: Does single parenthood cause poverty, or do the conditions that go along with poverty -- unemployment, a lack of education and hopelessness -- keep people from marrying?

Criticism of the Bush administration's logic on this subject has resulted in some unlikely alliances. Michael Tanner of the libertarian think tank Cato Institute, who has appeared on stage with presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and NOW representatives in opposition to the marriage initiative, is definitely coming at the issue from a dislike of big government. He calls the initiative a "colossal waste of money," primarily because it misses the point. There isn't a marriage crisis, he says, noting that 90 percent of Americans are married by their 40s. What there is, among the poor, is a marriagability crisis.

"Getting girls to marry the fathers of their children is not the problem -- they would if the fathers were marriageable," Tanner said. "The fathers of these children, 38 percent have criminal records, 20 percent are unemployed and another 20 percent earn less than $10,000 a year. These are not men who women are going to gain a great deal by marrying."

Just as women eyeball their prospective mates' economic prospects, especially if they are responsible for children, so too do men assess their brides' futures, says Coontz.

"Very few men decide to get married because they want to rescue a woman from poverty," she writes. "Women with few skills and poor education are therefore quite disadvantaged in the marriage market. Giving women more education and job training would make them more marriageable while also improving their ability to support their children if they remain unmarried." Add "child care" to that wish list.

Coontz and Folbre say single parenthood need not be a ticket to a lifetime of poverty -- for an example they point to Sweden, where a closely woven social safety net keeps that country's many single parents in reasonable economic health. And two-parent families are hardly immune to economic stress, which, incidentally, contributes to breakups: a 2001 study by sociologist Scott South showed that every time the unemployment rate rises 1 percent, 10,000 couples get divorced.

Tripping Down the Altar

Marriage initiative advocates say many of their programs perform an important service by targeting engaged couples for premarital counseling precisely in order to prevent the pain and familial disruption of divorce. Eastburg, whose Healthy Marriage Grand Rapids created an inexpensive ($30), secular premarital workshop for couples who choose civil ceremonies, says the judges his group approached to recommend the course had some "pretty wild" stories about newlyweds-to-be who had no idea what they were getting into. He has seen some himself, firsthand.

"One guy called to register," Eastburg says. "We asked him his name and we asked his bride's name and he said, 'Linda.' We said, 'What's her last name?' He said, 'Can I get back to you on that?' So we feel like we meet a need. We're tapping the brakes."

Fine, says Coontz. "To the extent that this acts as a precedent that the government is prepared to provide social counseling for people, that's great," she says. "That part of it is potentially very healthy." She worries, though, about the advent of federally funded groups whose "marriage counselors" received their credentials after a weekend workshop. And, she asks, given the involvement of faith-based groups," What are they going to be counseled?"

Dr. Sandra Bender, who started the Cleveland Marriage Coalition after 30 years as a marriage counselor, smells a self-satisfied liberal rat in the arguments against programs like hers.

"Poor people want relationships," she says. "It's really discriminatory for people to say, 'Poor people don't need relationships, they need jobs.' How can you say poor people don't need healthy relationships just like everybody else? And there's a great deal of money already being spent to provide jobs for poor people. This is filling a gap."

"Of course poor people need relationships," counters Coontz. "What kind of a straw man is that? It's this fetish about attaching it to marriage."

Excluding people who don't intend to marry from receiving the benefits of social counseling is misguided, she says. In a book on the history of marriage she's working on for a fall publication date, Coontz shows that marriage has changed more in the last 30 years than in the last 3,000. Because people wait longer to get married and often outlive their partners, the primacy of marriage is fading.

"It will never again be the exclusive institution, or even the main one, where people's main interpersonal needs get met," she says. "And so I think it's terribly irresponsible to pretend every relationship is going to end in marriage."

All in all, Coontz says, "There's too much tendency to pretend this is an anti-poverty measure that can substitute for the more proven anti-poverty measures of educating men and women, providing jobs and providing child care. Those are things we know will reduce the poverty rate."

Traci Hukill is a freelancer writer in Washington D.C.