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

The critics are already lining up, with some questioning whether it should be the role of government to get involved in marital relationships — and whether faith-based groups should get federal funds to promote their brand of marriage.

Saying marriage isn't the answer to relieve the poverty of women and children, feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women say poor women would benefit more from higher-wage jobs with good benefits than from premarital counseling.

Stephanie Coontz, national co-chair of the Center for Contemporary Families, said while she's all for providing counseling for fragile families who can't afford it, she is worried that marriage promotion will be stressed at the expense of what she considers "true anti-poverty programs."

Often, Coontz said, a lack of marriage is a symptom, not a root cause of poverty. Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, said her research shows that men who become unwed fathers are more than twice as likely as married fathers to be unemployed and to have physical or psychological problems that interfere with their ability to hold jobs.

Unemployed men are far less likely than other men to form and sustain stable relationships, while men who have stable jobs tend to seek mates who also have higher educational levels and earnings potential.

So, while helping to strengthen relationships is good, Coontz said, if we don't also give parents long-term support systems, we may do them more harm than good.

"Job education and training are what people need," Coontz said. "It makes them more marriageable and makes marriages more likely to be stable but doesn't penalize children in those families if the marriage breaks up or they don't get married."

While good marriages are positive for children, she said, endorsing marriage at all costs could put kids at risk of living in unhappy two-parent homes. Another potentially destructive consequence is setting children up for instability and disappointment when their parents' relationships fail. Statistics show that marriages and long-term relationships among poor adults are even more at risk of breaking up than average.

Conflict of Values

A recent study of 2,100 poor families by Johns Hopkins University researchers shows just how elusive stability in relationships can be for this fragile group: 42 percent of the live-in relationships and 18 percent of the married couples studied had separated after 16 months.

Another potential pitfall is figuring out just who the counselors should be and what value systems they would bring to their clients, Coontz said.

Faith-based marriage promotion groups could teach valuable relationship skills but may have sets of values that conflict with the values of those they are trying to reach. Such counselors may have specific views on homosexuality, cohabitation and gender roles, for example.

"I know some evangelical Christians who work with poor people and don't impose values," Coontz said. "But many groups feel a man has to be the head of the household and that's the best way to make a marriage go. This isn't going to work in groups with more egalitarian values."

In the end, some researchers say there's no scientific proof counseling actually cuts divorce rates or leads more people into marriage anyway.

"There's no real consensus about why people stay married or why they get divorced," said Ellen Rosen, a resident scholar at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis University who is doing research on why people stay married. "There certainly doesn't seem to be any evidence that classes or marriage counseling make a difference. There is much more evidence that suggests that paying women more would help alleviate stresses that lead to divorce."

Bush's marriage proposal promotes the ideological agenda of the right wing but does not stand up under scrutiny, Rosen said.

"This is total silliness as far as I am concerned," she said. "I'm not against marriage, it's a good thing, but it's difficult to sustain."