Marriage on the Mind

Marriage on the Mind

The Bush Administration’s misguided poverty cure.


Taken the wrong way, a correlation can be a dangerous thing. Consider the relationship between marriage and well-being. There’s much undisputed evidence that married people are, on average, wealthier, healthier and better educated than their single counterparts. Even the novice student of statistics will tell you that association does not mean causation–that being poor, unwell and uneducated is as likely to discourage marriage as the other way around. Nevertheless, the notion that tying the knot can alleviate poverty and bring about positive social change has become the central justification for the Bush Administration’s push for low-income women to get and stay married.

If the Administration is really concerned about poverty and other social problems it claims are caused by divorce and singleness, why not tackle those ills directly? Instead, what the Administration calls the “Healthy Marriage Initiative” is an array of programs that promote the institution in its narrowest sense. While debate has centered on the proposal attached to the stalled welfare bill, which would allot $1.6 billion toward marriage-related projects over the next five years, the federal government has already committed more than $90 million to marriage-related projects since 2001, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. (The funds have been drawn from such diverse–and inappropriate–sources as the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Administration for Native Americans and the Developmental Disabilities Program.)

The Bush marriage strategy can be broken into two parts: efforts to encourage single people to marry and those aimed at keeping married couples together. The theory underlying the first category, which includes pro-marriage media blitzes featuring billboards, posters, calendars and pamphlets as well as premarital classes for high school students, singles and unmarried couples, is that explaining the benefits of marriage will nudge people to the altar. The assumption seems to be that the targets of these campaigns somehow forgot about the institution–or that they don’t know enough to desire it.

But it turns out most low-income people already want to get married. Perhaps the most illuminating insight into why they don’t comes from the Fragile Families study, an ongoing, in-depth investigation of the relationships of more than 3,700 mostly low-income, unmarried couples in twenty US cities that began in 1998. According to these researchers, led by Princeton sociology professor Sara McLanahan, 86 percent of the unmarried mothers and 91 percent of the unmarried fathers who were living together around the time of their child’s birth said they wanted to get married. Yet by the end of the year, only 15 percent of these couples had.

Administration officials seized on these findings, taking them to mean that marriage-education efforts need to reach poor couples during this “magic window” after birth. But inadvertently or not, they missed the key point: Most couples in the study didn’t follow through with their plans to marry because they faced daunting and sometimes insuperable obstacles, such as infidelity and drug abuse.

Poverty also seems to make people feel less entitled to marry. As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.” Thus, since he was still scraping bottom, he wasn’t ready for it. “There’s an identity associated with marriage that they don’t feel they can achieve,” McLanahan says of her interviewees. (Ironically, romantic ideas about weddings–the limos, cakes and gowns of bridal magazines–seem to stand in the way of marriage in this context. Many in the study said they were holding off until they could afford a big wedding bash.)

Underlying the anxiety around marriage identity is real poverty that eats away at people’s abilities to be supportive parents and life partners. And while the chicken-egg conundrum of money and marriage comes up here, the Fragile Families study offers evidence that income facilitates marriage; an increase of one dollar per hour in men’s wages in the study increased the odds they’d marry by 5 percent. Men who earned $25,000 or more in the past year had more than double the rates of marriage of those who didn’t.

Given the stresses of poverty, one might predict that direct income support would improve relationships. In fact, one of the few government efforts to have a documented effect on marital relationships is the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which increased employment and cash supports for long-term welfare recipients. According to MDRC, a nonprofit research organization that evaluated the Minnesota program, unmarried cohabiting couples who participated in it were almost 38 percent more likely to marry, and participants who were already married were less likely to divorce. Another income support program, the Wisconsin W-2 study, had a similarly positive effect on relationships. Yet the Bush Administration has said its marriage money cannot be used toward any efforts–whether income support like these, drug treatment or employment assistance programs–that do not directly address the issue of marriage.

Policy-makers crafting the marriage plan have also evaded the inconvenient reality of domestic violence, which at any given time affects between 15 and 25 percent of the welfare caseload. Relationship violence should, of course, be a deterrent to marriage. Distressingly, though, mothers in the Fragile Families study who were victims of violence weren’t any less likely to marry their partners. Advocates are concerned that, in their zeal for marriage, marriage educators may overlook domestic violence. Or, by offering financial incentives to marry, as several do, programs will encourage women to get or stay in violent relationships.

Some of the state-based marriage programs, including the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, have welcomed the advice of domestic violence experts on the curriculum for marriage classes and allowed them to train people leading the state’s workshops. But, while Administration officials have repeatedly said they don’t want to push women into violent relationships, they have given money to many programs that do not have such provisions to protect against domestic violence, and the pending marriage initiative attached to the welfare bill does not require programs to include them.

It’s true that, if the government were somehow able to increase marriage rates just by encouraging and educating people without dealing directly with these hurdles, the poverty rate would register a slight decrease. When researchers conducted a statistical simulation of marriage, matching single mothers and unmarried men who are similar in age, education and race, they found that, if marriages were increased to 1970 rates, just by combining incomes the poverty rate would drop from 13.0 percent to 9.5 percent. Of course, pooling resources can make life easier financially (though many of the people being encouraged to marry already do). Yet no one knows how to get couples to marry; there is no evidence that marriage-promotion efforts actually work. Moreover, such programs ignore the overlapping cultural forces–including the increasing economic independence of women and gay liberation–that caused marriage rates to drop in the first place.

There is some evidence that efforts to help married people stay together can be effective. Studies have shown that certain workshops, counseling sessions and classes now being considered or funded by the government can improve communication between married couples and cut down on marital discord. But so far, this research reflects the experience only of the mostly middle-class participants who have sought out these programs and not that of the poor people the current marriage effort is now targeting.

The difference is critical. Various projects are under way to adapt programs to this new population, translating books and manuals into Spanish and producing written materials for people with lower reading levels, according to the Administration. But as even Wade Horn, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Assistant Secretary for Children and Families and architect of the marriage initiative, admits, “It’s much more complicated than just taking the drawing of the Lexus in the driveway and putting it in front of an apartment complex.” Indeed. By focusing just on marriage, rather than on the problems of poverty and violence, Horn and his cohorts are unlikely to succeed in preserving many marriages in low-income populations.

Programs encouraging low-income couples to get married are similarly limited by the overwhelming problems of the populations they target. According to McLanahan of the Fragile Families study, one-third of unmarried new parents would need social services such as drug or mental-health treatment before marrying, while circumstances, such as incarceration or a couple not being romantically involved, put marriage out of the question for another third.

Nevertheless, the Administration is eagerly pushing ahead, willing to recruit any bit of research to its cause, no matter how flimsy or biased. Or so it would seem, judging from a May press conference that touted an evaluation of a community marriage initiative run by Marriage Savers, a Christian group that employs clergy to prevent divorce.

The report, which was co-written by Stan Weed, concluded that the group’s efforts resulted in a decline in divorce rates in certain counties. (Before conducting the study, Weed received $46,737 from Marriage Savers, according to his 2002 tax return, though the group says it was just passing on money for the evaluation from a Justice Department grant. The conservative Heritage Foundation, which strongly supports the marriage-promotion initiative, helped procure the funding for the study.) But even Weed, a conservative Mormon researcher known to be supportive of abstinence and marriage programs, concluded that the drop in divorce rates was “modest” and could be the result of forces other than the Marriage Savers program. Still, Horn seemed to regard the study as a strong defense of the entire marriage plan. “Critics of the Healthy Marriage Initiative have charged that we don’t know how to help more couples to build lifelong marriages or to reduce the likelihood that half of new marriages will end in divorce,” he said at the press conference. “This pioneering research by Dr. Stan Weed and colleagues proves them wrong.”

And despite the Administration’s rhetorical emphasis on “healthy marriage,” the study took the view that the reduction of divorce is a positive outcome, regardless of the quality of the marriage. Religion is clearly at least part of the reason that Horn, who was himself a board member of Marriage Savers before taking a government position, and others seem so eager to promote the institution at any cost. Marriage Savers is openly church-based, and Michael McManus, president of the organization, sees marriage in biblical terms. “Couples often live together as a way to test the relationship. However, both Scripture and sociology suggest they are embracing evil,” McManus writes on the group’s website. Through his program, “churches help couples test their relationship while holding onto good and avoiding the evil.”

Marriage Savers is just one of several religious groups promoting marriage, and the Bush Administration would clearly like the number to be higher. A March 29 statement from the Administration plugs its latest priorities on the welfare bill, including the expansion of “charitable choice” provisions, which would allow more faith-based organizations to get marriage grants through the bill. Revealingly, the policy statement also opposes any increase in funding for childcare.

Taken together with the Administration’s support of a constitutional amendment against gay marriage (without even a half-hearted attempt to explain why the institution wouldn’t bestow the same supposed benefits on same-sex couples), the limit on childcare funding and the emphasis on religion help answer at least one of the looming questions about the marriage initiative: The Administration isn’t focusing its policies on poverty and social problems because they’re not the point. Marriage is–in its most traditional, most religious sense, in which women stay at home with children and are financially dependent on their husbands. Rooted in politics rather than research, the Bush marriage initiative is symbolic policy that aims to appear “compassionate,” even as it skirts the real problems of poverty and turns back the clock on women’s and gay liberation.

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