As Congress squabbles over how and whether to revamp the welfare law, one thing is clear: The Bush Administration has marriage on the mind. The Administration has already promised to make marriage-related grants through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Office of Child Support Enforcement and the military, and is banking on a likely $100 million in marriage funds for welfare recipients. Perhaps trying to dispel the appearance of class-based moralizing, Wade Horn, the President’s pick to head the marriage initiative, has depicted the federal effort as an attempt at egalitarianism: “Most people have had access to marriage counselors for years,” says Horn, a former family therapist himself. “Why shouldn’t the poor have the same opportunity?”

But the marriage programs likely to receive funding from any new federal welfare initiative aren’t what many think of as couples therapy. In fact, at a recent marriage-movement conference in Washington, where sixty federal employees viewed sample workshops and guided marriage advocates through the federal funding process, mention of the word “therapy” elicited a collective, dismissive chuckle.

Helping distressed couples “isn’t about analyzing their feelings to death,” Michele Weiner-Davis, author of The Divorce Remedy, told the government administrators and marriage educators at the “Smart Marriages” conference. Indeed, while many a therapist who serves private clients is open to the idea that breaking up may be a solution to a troubled couple’s problems, devotees of the marriage movement–from which Horn springs and to which he is expected to dole out most of the welfare marriage grants–generally see staying together as the only good outcome. “The goal should be to save the marriage,” says Weiner-Davis.

Though there’s no evidence that quick-fix programs will reverse declining marriage rates (let alone that marriage is what poor women really need), welfare dollars will be spent on billboards advertising marriage and high school lessons on the financial and social value of matrimony. First Things First, a grassroots marriage-promotion program in Chattanooga, Tennessee, seems to be something of a model in its PR approach to the issue. The program has garnered federal attention by using local businesses, TV ads and electronic newsletters to promote matrimony. Julie Baumgardner, mastermind of the campaign, says she sees it as “selling marriage to hard audiences.”

The government’s marriage push will also make “premarital education” classes available to welfare recipients. “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk,” a workshop created by a former minister, John Van Epp, was one such program presented at the Smart Marriages conference. Van Epp, who says he’s hopeful about the possibility of receiving funding through the military, warns of boyfriends who don’t shield their dates’ hairdos from the rain or gift well on Valentine’s Day–tipoffs, he says, that they may have “malfunctioning social consciences.” He also teaches about compatibility. “Make sure you have chemistry,” Van Epp advises. And “if you’re of average IQ, don’t marry a genius.”

If the wisdom of Washington taking on such dating dilemmas is questionable, the potential for stemming the ebbing popularity of marriage is more so. There is scant research on the effects of marriage-promotion schemes that stand to get federal funds, including school-based “marital education” classes and the religious programs at the root of the marriage movement. A slim compendium of literature on marriage programs assembled by Bill Coffin, special assistant for marriage education at the federal Administration for Children and Families, consists of unpublished analyses and individual case reports, as well as evaluations of programs the government would presumably not be able to fund, such as a mandatory marriage course taught in the Catholic Church. None of the listed studies focus on the low-income populations on which these programs will soon be foisted. Coffin’s few stapled-together pages give the distinct sense that the government’s vast effort to shore up marriage is a mystery even to those in charge. The Bush Administration doesn’t know how to restore marriage to its past primacy. But it’s not letting that stand in the way of this vast and wasteful experiment on the poor.