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Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2002

President Bush's welfare plan, "Working Toward Independence," proposes awarding an annual $200 million to states to promote marriage and responsible fatherhood. How would this be done? According to the plan, the goal would be accomplished through "demonstration projects" and partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, including faith-based groups.

Meanwhile, Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Wade Horn is championing a role for government to teach people the "skills and knowledge" to have "healthy marriages."

Congress has yet to reach agreement on legislation reauthorizing the 1996 welfare law, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. But the Republican party's gains in Congress suggest that when a new welfare law is passed, it will probably contain the type of marriage-promotion appropriations the Administration seeks, and is likely to mirror Bush and Horn's pre-marital education approach.

But the truth is that the instability of American families is not primarily caused by the lack of premarital education. Nor can it be cured solely by providing more such education.

Rather, helping people to form and maintain healthy marriages requires more. In particular, it requires a more intensive governmental commitment to fostering the economic and social preconditions for stable, strong families to thrive.

How Marriage-Promotion Efforts Are Likely to Work in Practice: Not Well

"Let's Get Married," a recent documentary by journalist Alex Kotlowitz, televised on Frontline, suggests that these proposals to promote marriage will likely fall short of this more intensive governmental commitment.

Kotlowitz agrees that conservatives are "on to something," in that "[t]his very private institution, marriage, has very public consequences." To be sure, the contrary idea, that "marriage is non of government's business," fails to recognize government's interest in fostering and supporting strong families. But the documentary also reveals that even ardent marriage promoters are not sure how government should promote marriage and whether current proposals to promote marriage are likely to have any beneficial effect.

In particular, the documentary focuses on the lives of a divorced mother in Oklahoma and two unmarried mothers in South Chicago. In Oklahoma, Governor Keating has dedicated $10 million of welfare funds to reduce the divorce rate. In the poor neighborhoods of South Chicago, nonmarital families outnumber marital ones.

The documentary shows that marriage promotion efforts to date do not confront the range of obstacles to achieving stable family life that these low-income women face. Two significant factors that the marriage promotion efforts simply do not address are economic insecurity, and domestic violence.

Economic insecurity alone is a huge factor. One young, unmarried woman on whom the documentary focuses discusses her plan to marry the father of her youngest child once they are financially stable. But in the end, he feels compelled to sell drugs to buy diapers and food for their child, and she pawns her engagement ring to pay for necessities. He ends up in jail, and they remain unmarried - but it's for lack of money, not for lack of marital education.

Meanwhile, Kotlowitz interviewed a group of African-American grandmothers in South Chicago about the government's interest in promoting marriage, and they similarly suggested that marriage was no panacea; the real problem was poverty. One observed, "Marriage does not take you out of poverty. . . . You can be married, and you still can't get a job." Another commented, "The marriage can't - it won't hold without the money."

Domestic violence is another major obstacle for the women portrayed in the documentary. Two of the three mothers Kotlowitz profiles experienced it. And obviously, marriage promotion efforts make no sense if the husband turns out to be a batterer; indeed, marriage might only worsen the situation if a woman marries an abusive man. Thus, one divorced Oklahoman doubts that relationship skills training would have helped address the abuse in her marriage.

In Oklahoma, a survey found that 47% of the low-income persons (who had at one time received governmental assistance) identified domestic violence as a reason for their divorce. (Across the economic spectrum, 44% of all the women surveyed identified domestic violence as a factor; only 8% of the men did.)

Perhaps the "skills and knowledge" that government seeks to teach might help reduce conflicts leading to domestic violence. However, the current rhetoric about marriage promotion pays scant attention to the magnitude of this problem.

The Problem with the "Magic Moment" Theory

An animating premise of the marriage movement is that most Americans seek a happy, lasting marriage, but that goal eludes them. One answer, according to the marriage promotion movement, is premarital education. This answer also holds for low-income, unmarried parents, whom government seeks to help to make it to the altar once children are born.

The source of this belief is the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The study followed the lives of a group of unmarried, low-income parents, and found that at the time of the birth of a child, most parents are romantically involved. At that time, the majority of couples say there is a good chance they will marry. But only 1 in 10 actually does.

This time is a "magic moment," policymakers argue, to help unmarried parents gain the "skills and knowledge" to marry and stay married. But two scholars involved in the "fragile families" study, interviewed by Kotlowitz, caution that the idea of a "magic moment" is misleading. Kathryn Edin of Northwestern University and Ronald Mincy of Columbia University both report that low-income couples view marriage as sacred, and do not want to marry until they can "do it right."

The couples view economic stability as an important foundation for a strong marriage. And Mincy suggests they are correct to do so: "If you have two people who are unemployed, who have very little skills, putting a wedding ring around their fingers is not going to all of a sudden make them magically more productive, able to go to work, able to invest in one another, and able to have healthy and productive children." Rather, "we need to invest in people to build their capacity, to put them in a position to be married."

Edin echoes this prescription. She cautions that the "myth" of the "magic moment" - that all couples need is a little push to the altar - fails to grapple with "all the problems these couples have."

In other research on low-income mothers' views of marriage, Edin finds that it is not just economics, but also women's concerns about equality and power within the relationship, fidelity, and domestic violence that account for their reluctance to marry.

That adds yet a third factor impeding stable marriages to the two factors previously discussed, economic insecurity and domestic violence. The factor is gender conflict: Women and men may have different expectations about what marriage will entail.

Measures That Will Truly Promote Marriage Are Primarily Economic, Not Educational

Meanwhile, investing in human capital and building low-income people's capacity to work, and to work in skilled, fulfilling jobs, is a proven and sound way to promote strong families and responsible decision making. Yet it seems unlikely that the current program of marriage promotion will extend this far.

For example, in Kotlowitz's documentary, conservative sociologist James Q. Wilson contends that a focus on economic factors is "profoundly wrong," for "redistributing income simply makes it, for some people, easier to raise children without a father present." Horn has expressed similar fears about unmarried mothers not needing marriage if they become independent through work.

But that is unfortunate: Marriage should be valued insofar as it helps low-income people lead better lives, not merely as an end in itself, regardless of the consequences. No marriage at all may be better than a marriage marred by domestic violence, for example.

A better view would affirm a public responsibility to help families - whether headed by single parents, married couples, or unmarried couples - as parents struggle to meet caregiving and market labor responsibilities. A new social contract that affirms both personal and public responsibility should help "working families," not only married couples.

Linda McClain is a professor at Hofstra University School of Law, where she teaches family law and welfare law.

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