Beyond the Threshold


It’s as if Washington had, out of nowhere, turned into a giant wedding chapel with Bush performing the nuptials. The president’s proposed marriage initiative has been cast as a profound change in government policy: Uncle Sam suddenly turns matchmaker. With $300 million of funds from the soon-to-be reauthorized Welfare Reform Act allotted for marriage promotion, poor people can expect an unprecedented array of programs nudging them toward the altar, including billboards advertising the joys of matrimony; “marriage education” for unwed, expecting parents; and “marriage mentoring” programs in which married couples serve as role models for singles.

But in fact, the feds and some states have been pushing marriage for several years now. In Arkansas, where Governor Mike Huckabee declared a “state of marital emergency,” the state embarked on a campaign to halve the divorce rate. Florida has instituted a mandatory marriage and relationship class for high school seniors. Utah, the only state to have designated an annual “marriage week,” has earmarked $600,000 for pro-wedlock projects, including a video. And Oklahoma’s program (which is being called “the Governor and Mrs. Keating’s marriage initiative”) has used $10 million of welfare money to fund rallies and a year-long tour of public appearances by a husband-and-wife team of evangelical Christian “marriage ambassadors.” Sprung from the first Welfare Reform Act in 1996—which explicitly aimed to lower out-of-wedlock births and increase marriage—these and other fledgling programs have already encountered fiscal and ethical dilemmas that give a sense of the trouble to come as Bush exponentially expands the government’s role in marriage.

It’s not that couples don’t stand to benefit by sharpening their ability to listen, lowering unrealistic expectations, and improving anger management—skills taught in many of these government-sponsored classes. But critics have an array of objections, including the targeting of poor people with such intimate directives. Though their purported goal is reducing poverty and improving children’s lives, these programs endorse only the classic union of man and wife, not stable nonmatrimonial relationships or same-sex bonds. Moreover, as there is no evidence that marriage promotion programs actually reduce poverty, matrimony mavens seem to be siphoning off federal funds for promoting their religious values.

Even conservatives, such as Robert Boaz of the Cato Institute, have objected to the intrusiveness of the Bush initiative. “Marriage is one of the most intimate associations in our lives, and the government should stay out of it,” he insists.

And then there are pesky practical matters of spending money on such unproven programs during tough economic times. Consider the problems marriage promoters have run into in West Virginia, the only state to give an ongoing financial incentive to poor people who tie the knot. (Several others temporarily alter income requirements for newlyweds.) Each married couple on welfare in West Virginia has received a $100 monthly bonus since July of 2000. In one recent month, the state gave bonuses to 1872 couples, which would amount to some $2,246,400 a year, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources. Meanwhile, the state has discovered a shortfall in its welfare budget that some estimate to be as high as $90 million and has stepped up its efforts to push people who reached the five-year limit off the rolls.

“The amount spent on this marriage bonus is enough to cover more than 400 families who are losing their benefits,” says Rick Wilson, director of the West Virginia Economic Justice Project, who says he knows of several former welfare recipients who were forced to leave their apartments after their checks stopped coming. The state’s welfare advisory panel suggested dumping the marriage incentive and using the money to pay for the basics like rent, but the Bush administration has pressured West Virginia to continue the program.

An even bigger obstacle for the federal marriage initiative may lie in the Constitution. In its marriage campaign (as in its booming abstinence education effort, which also uses federal money to promote the idea that marriage is the norm of human behavior), the government ends up providing vast sums to religious groups, asking them to implement social policy. After 1996, New York State awarded its largest abstinence-education grant to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, and experts expect godly groups to have similarly good fortune this time around.

When marriage guru Mike McManus advised Wisconsin to hire an adviser to work exclusively with priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders to encourage marriage within their congregations, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sued, and a state court ruled that the hiring would violate the separation of church and state. McManus’s Christian organization, Marriage Savers, is a likely recipient of future marriage grants.

Indeed, Marriage Savers has particularly close ties to the Bush administration. Wade Horn, Bush’s assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services, who has been seen as the architect of the administration’s abstinence and marriage promotion programs, was a founding board member of Marriage Savers. (In the Marriage Savers newsletter, McManus rejoices that, as secretary, Horn “will be in a position to encourage faith-based initiatives.”)

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.”