Saying too many families are fragile and broken, President Bush has proposed spending $300 million to promote marriage as part of welfare reform. While the plan has received some praise, not everyone is saying "I do" to the president's proposal.
Promoting marriage was also part of the 1996 law that ended welfare as an entitlement, but only five states actually use federal dollars for this purpose. As Congress prepares to hash out the reauthorization of the welfare law, a debate looms over the role government-sanctioned marriage promotion should play in fighting poverty.
Bush's proposal would fund programs that help couples work out their problems before and during marriage. "You see, strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children, and stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy," Bush said last week in unveiling his plan.
Statistics suggest that children from two-parent families are less likely to end up in poverty, drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out of wedlock, suffer abuse, or become violent criminals. According to recent census figures, 6 percent of families with two parents live in poverty, compared to 33 percent of families headed by single moms.
It is unclear exactly which programs would receive federal dollars to promote marriage, but in his speech last week, Bush hailed some counseling programs already underway.
Can Marriage Save the Culture?
He mentioned programs, usually church-based, that use "mentor couples" who counsel other, struggling couples. Bush also cited programs that help couples work through serious problems such as adultery or addiction.
Mike McManus, co-founder of Marriage Savers, a national non-profit organization that works with congregations to reduce divorce rates, runs the kind of program that is a likely candidate for federal dollars if Bush's proposal makes it through Congress.
Through McManus' program, sparring couples can sign up through their church or synagogue to work with mentors who begin counseling by presenting an "inventory" of up to 192 statements couples can agree or disagree with, such as: "I give my partner the silent treatment," or "I find it hard to say I'm sorry," or "I want to raise my kids in the church."
Once problems are identified, the mentors help couples craft solutions.
By McManus' account, the program is hugely successful in keeping couples together. In McManus' church in Maryland, 52 mentor couples worked with 300 couples in premarital counseling from 1992 to 1999. Of the 300, about 52 split before the wedding. Of the nearly 250 who did marry, there have been only six divorces in eight years, McManus said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of all first marriages end in divorce.
McManus and his wife, Harriet, have also persuaded clergy in 150 cities, including Modesto, Calif., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Peoria, Ill., to sign "Community Marriage Policies" agreeing to help couples prepare for marriage and strengthen existing ones. In Kansas City, Kan., and its suburbs, the McManuses claim a 44 percent decrease in divorces in four years.
Given the data showing how kids benefit from marriage, promoting two-parent families is in the government's best interest, McManus says. "Bush is making marriage the next reform of welfare reform," he said. "That's a great thing because good marriage is the long-term answer for the whole culture."
Critics Say No Proof It Works