Marry or Burn

The White House's new anti-poverty program: Shotgun weddings

Of course, most of the legal rights accrued to husbands, who virtually owned their wives and children. This hierarchy was thought to be fair because women were believed to enter into the bargain voluntarily and because men were supposed to support their families: "If a husband provided passably for his dependents, he fulfilled the most important requirement of his manhood in marriage, as much as a wife showed her femininity by giving evidence of obedient service."

As people without rights, slaves were not allowed to marry. Common-law marriages reflect the fact that, in addition to the parties' mutual consent, public recognition of a couple's bond defined their marriage.

Even in revolutionary times, however, there was room for divorce when one or the other spouse failed to fulfill their role. And by 1800, it was possible to divorce in almost every state in the union; several had formally spelled out the circumstances in which a marriage could be dissolved.

Marc Phares

By the 1970s, most Americans had access to the no-fault divorce, where a marriage could be ended simply because the partners were unhappy. Divorce rates rose sharply, even as marriage rates fell. The number of households headed by unmarried couples multiplied 10 times between 1960 and 1998, and the number of unmarried adults rose. During the same time period, the divorce rate skyrocketed. Half of all marriages now end in divorce.

This trend had disturbed religious conservatives for decades. But by the mid-'90s, research confirming that children fared best in stable two-parent families had sparked a number of family social scientists, psychologists, and researchers to change their views and begin to complain that they'd wrongly put self-actualization before family unity. Liberal and conservative marriage proponents began talking about how to teach couples relationship skills, and the so-called marriage movement was born.

It's anything but homogeneous, though. "Some single parents do a good job, some two-parent families do a bad job," cautions Theodora Ooms, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, and one of the marriage movement's leading liberals. "One third of divorced parents had high-conflict marriages, and in those cases the children seemed better off. But in the about two-thirds of divorces that were not high conflict, the parents just drifted apart. In those cases, the kids seemed to be bewildered, and not relieved, when their parents divorced." It's those couples, she and other marriage movement leaders say, who should be encouraged to stick together and to make their marriages better.

Ooms is among the marriage proponents who have taken an interest in Minnesota's successes with MFIP and urge the adoption of a Minnesota-like model. "In my organization we've been working on an initiative we've been calling marriage plus," says Ooms. "We're reasonably optimistic about this marriage counseling business, but we think it's not enough."

It's on this point that the marriage movement seems most likely to fracture. Indeed, the right is already beginning to kvetch about the possible co-optation of its brainchild.

"Regrettably, efforts have emerged to undermine the president's healthy marriage initiative by substituting an alternative dubbed 'marriage plus,'" Rector and his colleagues complained in a recent Heritage Foundation background paper. "While proponents of marriage plus pay lip service to the importance of promoting marriage, this project is in fact intended to cripple the president's initiative by siphoning off limited marriage funds into traditional government activities that have little or nothing to do with marriage. Such ancillary 'marriage plus' activities include job training, child support collections, pregnancy prevention and contraceptive promotion, feel-good programs for absent fathers, and traditional welfare benefits to 'fight poverty.'"


In the early '90s, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson experimented with paying teen mothers on welfare an extra $80 a month if they married. However, Thompson declined to evaluate "Bridefare," as the program was dubbed, leaving it unclear whether it amounted to anything more than an ideological gesture.

More recently, as part of Bush's pilot program, West Virginia began paying an extra $100 a month to welfare recipients who marry. The first year the cash bonuses were available, only around 1,600 couples applied. In Colorado lawmakers proposed paying welfare recipients a one-time "bonus or dowry" of $500 to $1,000. The bill failed to clear the state senate.

Although a number of state governments began talking to religious groups about ways to promote marriage, it's unclear how well the projects have worked. Arizona spent $1.6 million on the initiative in 2000, most of it doled out to churches and other groups teaching relationship skills. The state also handed out vouchers to allow low-income couples to attend the classes, and spent $75,000 on the printing of a marriage handbook. Oklahoma, which has one of the highest divorce rates in the nation, spent $10 million that year on activities ranging from encouraging religious leaders to offer marriage preparation classes to improving the collection of data regarding Oklahomans' attitudes about marriage.

In addition, the marriage movement's liberals are concerned that the marriage education programs that have turned out to be effective to date won't be much help. The curricula developed by Smart Marriages and other groups providing marriage-enhancement classes and workshops are aimed primarily at middle-class couples and may not work with so-called fragile families. It's hard to resolve disagreements about money when you don't have any. (Nonetheless, Smart Marriages' website includes links to information about government grants members may wish to apply for.)

« Previous Page
Next Page »