Beyond the Threshold

Marriage Programs Preview What Bush Has in Store

Marriage Savers, which contends that the church is the "key to marriage," recommends studying scripture and consulting religious leaders before a wedding. The ministry offers the following script for how a "marriage mentoring" couple might help a woman who found out her husband had cheated on her: "We know adultery breaks trust. . . . Let us tell you how we rebuilt trust. Let us pray with you about this."

Not all government-sponsored marriage support is or will be religious. In Arizona, which spends $1 million on marriage education, 11 of 15 counties are conducting experimental workshops in which couples are treated to such secular marital maxims as "Marriage is all about 'we' not 'I.' " The state has also used its welfare dollars to pay for a marriage handbook, which begins, "You may be surprised to learn that the State of Arizona has an interest in your marriage."

To poor people, the government interest in their marriages can feel both creepy and misguided. The proposal "is just another way of the government showing its true power over us," says Sindy Rivera, a single mom in Brooklyn who has been on welfare and says she didn't marry the father of her seven-year-old son because "he's irresponsible."

Poor kids—40 percent of whom already live in two-parent families—are at the center of the debate about marriage promotion. There's little dispute that children who live with both parents tend to do better than those living with just one; according to recent comparisons, children of single moms have five times the chance of living in poverty and roughly twice the risk of dropping out of school. But while being unmarried is often seen as the cause of misery—and the Bush proposal rests on that logic—a large swath of experts see the sequence of events the other way around. That is to say, poor couples' primary problem is being poor—not being unmarried.

Such was the finding of Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University who studied the effects of some of the marriage promotion efforts already underway on poor couples. While even short-term increases in welfare benefits did encourage marriage to some degree, Mincy found the biggest predictor of a couple's plans to stay together after they had a baby was whether the man had a job. "The guy's employment status trumps everything else," says Mincy, adding, "There are far too few resources to increase the employment and earning power of men" in the Bush plan.

But if poverty is messy and intractable, marriage is, at least from the Bush administration's perspective, relatively simple. Ignore the complexities and problems that have already sprung up in marriage programs across the country. Just Say "I Do."

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