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Marrying Absurd: The Bush Administration's attempts to encourage marriage | The Nation

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Marrying Absurd: The Bush Administration's attempts to encourage marriage

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Emily Amick

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In January The New York Times reported that for the first time in history, more than half of American women are living without a spouse. Although the piece was later revealed to rely upon trumped up statistics--girls as young as 15 were included in the Times' count, as were women whose husbands were away serving in the military--the article opened up a lively debate on the intersection between marriage and social and economic capital. In a less publicized but equally important follow up piece, Kate Zernike wrote that the interesting marriage divide is not simply between married and the unmarried women, but rather between the classes. "The emerging gulf is instead one of class--what demographers, sociologists and those who study the often depressing statistics about the wedded state call a 'marriage gap' between the well-off and the less so."

One of President Bush's "compassionate conservative" goals has always been to lessen this "marriage gap." The Healthy Marriage Initiative aims to address the growing fissure between marriage rates of the poor and the rich through grants to community and faith-based groups for marriage promotion and fatherhood initiatives.

Alongside cuts to social safety net programs like Medicare and Medicaid, this new initiative was allocated $750 million ($150 million per year for five years) in 2006. The goal of marriage promotion is, essentially, to increase the proportion of babies born to married couples and raised by two biological parents. Federal marriage promotion is intended to turn the back the clock to a time when all children were born into traditional, heterosexual families.

David Popenoe, head of The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, recently told The Philadelphia Inquirer: "I think we should look at marriage as an endangered national institution and look at ways to revive it."

Forget the whales. Marriages are the new thing to save.

Bush argues that strengthening marriage is important because it is in the best interest of children. In a 2003 speech announcing Marriage Protection Week, Bush said, "Research has shown that, on average, children raised in households headed by married parents fare better than children who grow up in other family structures.... By supporting responsible child-rearing and strong families, my administration is seeking to ensure that every child can grow up in a safe and loving home." Advocates for marriage promotion programs frame this issue, like many other "family values" issues, as a decision about which women must make the "right" choice if they are to be good mothers.

The interplay between marriage and child well-being has been subject to debate in the cultural zeitgeist for the past decade. Theodora Ooms, a consultant for the Center for Law and Social Policy, told Campus Progress that there is strong scientific evidence for the long-term benefits of growing up in a stable, two-parent household on children, even taking socioeconomic differences into consideration. Compared to children raised by their biological parents, children who are born out of wedlock or whose parents divorce are more likely to have behavioral and emotional problems, have lower academic achievement, use drugs, and end up on welfare as adults. In their book Growing Up with a Single Parent, sociologists Sarah McLanahan and Gary Sandefur also conclude that divorce and single parenthood diminish children's well-being.

Policies encouraging two-parent childrearing were not new with the Bush administration. Beginning in 1996 with President Clinton's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (also known as welfare reform), marriage promotion became codified as a part of federal welfare law. Aid to Families with Dependent Children was replaced with Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and its goals were shifted. Two of the four purposes of TANF are "to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families" and "to prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies."

But programs directly aimed at promoting marriage were not proposed until 2002, when Bush proposed a $1.5 billion allocation for that purpose. Interest groups immediately questioned whether a program that provides no direct poverty-fighting services was the most appropriate use of TANF funds. According to Ooms, under 1996 welfare reform, marriage promotion was never intended to be a replacement for other welfare programs, but simply an additional preventative measure. Women's groups such as the National Organization for Women's legal defense fund fought strongly against the legislation, arguing that the program could encourage women to stay in abusive relationships, was disparaging to single parents and their children, and took a moral view on the ideal way of life.

Up through the 2004 election, critics accused Bush of simply using the initiative to pander to his conservative base; supporting additional welfare funding seemed out of character for a conservative administration. In supporting a new marriage-centric welfare policy, conservative lawmakers had thrown aside their usual antipathy toward social policy and big government, making some liberals wonder if this program was part of a larger agenda to encourage women to stay within the home.

The Alternatives to Marriage Project published a report in 2002 called Let Them Eat Wedding Rings criticizing marriage promotion programs. It argues that welfare should be about reducing poverty, and that "if marriage were the solution, poor women wouldn't need to be bribed or bullied into marriage. You can't feed your children wedding rings or pay your electric bill with your marriage license. As it's been said, when one poor person marries another poor person, they're both still poor. The much-touted ill effects of life in a single parent family--children's higher mortality, ill health, poor school performance--correlate with poverty, not marital status." The report cites a study by scholars at Columbia University and Princeton University that concluded marriage does not end poverty among unmarried couples.

Analyses by groups such as The Urban Institute show that there is no evidence that marriage promotion programs alleviate poverty in any way. And since Bush's marriage program was enacted in 2002, research on the nexus of marriage, women, children, and poverty has grown.

In The State of our Unions 2006: The Social Health of Marriage in America, the National Marriage Project, much like The New York Times' "51 percent" article, focuses on upper-middle class career women. The project tells a story in which women's increasing education and independence has caused them to abandon marriage and full-time motherhood at alarming rates. According to the report, while motherhood used to be women's primary passion, today women are more motivated by work, sex, and romantic love, shunting children off to the wayside.

In the National Marriage Project's narrative, the supposed failings of contemporary marriage are inextricably intertwined with the moral failings of contemporary women. This mirrors the stance taken by the federal government going back to the Clinton administration. In 1996 Congress decreed, "Marriage is the foundation of a successful society" and "marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children." But in reality, women no longer exist as beings with the sole social purpose of birthing and raising children. Even in heterosexual, two-parent families, the majority of women--59 percent--work outside the home. Continuing the marriage promotion program, which sends the message that women belong within the domestic sphere--not in the public, political world--is a futile act out of touch with social reality.

Is it really possible that, as a society, we are unwilling to combine women's fulfillment outside of the home with effective childrearing? Progressives value allowing women to fulfill their potential, and moreover see how this benefits not only society and the economy, but children as well. The government should certainly play a role in helping to structure society so that it is the optimal place for children to grow up. But marriage promotion involves more value promotion than well-being promotion.

Steven P. Martin, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, told Zernike in The New York Times, "What's becoming more powerful is the idea that economic resources are conducive to stable marriages." Many experts have suggested funneling more money into job training programs, health care, affordable housing, childcare, and other services that will aid low-income people in caring for their families.

The Healthy Marriage Initiative is funded through 2010. Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit in September 2006 against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Northwest Marriage Institute alleging improper use of federal funds to promote Christian viewpoints; the institute is currently waiting to schedule a hearing. In the meantime, the Bush administration's marriage promotion policy will continue as is--ineffective and ideologically motivated.

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