Should government be trying to promote good marriages?

With two ex-husbands in jail, one convicted as an accessory to murder, Rachel McCabe might not seem a likely candidate for President Bush's heralded initiative to promote marriage.

But the tiny welfare mom with the warm smile says she might try tying the knot again. And as she stirs a pan of Tuna Helper in her crowded apartment in this mountain town, she admits that she might benefit quite a bit from a dose of government-funded Ask Amy social advice.

After all these years, and three kids, she'd still like to know what, exactly, a healthy marriage is supposed to look like. "It just took me too long to grow up," she says. "If you were raised by a single mother, as I was, it's hard to have your own family."

The White House is eager for Washington to provide such help. Three years after taking office, President Bush is redoubling efforts to win funds for an extensive effort to encourage couples - primarily those with low incomes - to get and stay married.

The effort has many critics. Some conservatives see the move as intrusive social engineering. Some liberals condemn it as an empty symbol that doesn't address the real needs of the poor.

Supporters say that divorce and single parenthood has run rampant in America for too long, and that government has an interest in reversing that trend.

"Now we're looking at marriage in a new way: as a public health education issue," says Diane Sollee, the director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in Washington.

It's inarguable that decades of rising divorce rates and the increase in children born to unwed mothers have had a profound effect on family formation in the US. Between 1960 and 1995, the percentage of children living with only one parent rose from around 12 percent to 27 percent.

This, in turn, has had a major impact on government antipoverty programs. Today more than 75 percent of all federal aid to kids, provided through such programs as food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, goes to single-parent families.

Some state governments have already launched programs to try to increase marriage rates, and trim welfare rolls in the process. In Oklahoma, for instance, the state provides voluntary marriage workshops for women on welfare. West Virginia provides an extra $100 a month in benefits to welfare moms who marry, to offset other benefit cuts they might incur.

For its part, the Bush administration two years ago proposed allocating $1.5 billion over five years to a marriage promotion effort. The proposal was a key part of the White House's welfare reauthorization legislation.

Last year the marriage plan passed both the House and the Senate Finance Committee. Now the administration is redoubling its effort to get the plan, and the larger welfare reauthorization bill, through the Senate as a whole.

"It's an important issue the president would like to see passed," says Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary of Health and Human Services for children and families.

The money would be channeled to states and community-based groups. According to Dr. Horn, the point would not be to advertise marriage per se, or convince singles of the benefits of marriage, but to provide counseling and advice for couples already contemplating wedlock or married couples experiencing marital problems.

There is preliminary research that indicates such counseling works, says Horn.

"There's a lot of research that shows what separates healthy marriages from unhealthy ones is not the frequency of conflict but the way the couple manages conflict," he says. "The good news is we can teach conflict resolution skills."

Some conservatives see the marriage initiative as a Democratic-like effort to poke the government's nose into essentially personal areas of life. Religious right groups might prefer that Bush push a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

But the strongest opposition to the plan has come from liberals who see it as essentially irrelevant, the moral equivalent of attempting to fight poverty by proposing a national dress code.

Single parenthood is as much an effect as a cause of the blight that effects inner cities and other poor areas, they say. The money might be better spent on job training or expanded child care programs. Worse, it might lure women into making a bad marriage choice.

"People who are poor have so many struggles every day just to make sure they're not cold, to make sure they have food ... that having a wedding ring on their finger is probably not a top priority," says Avis Jones-DeWeever, a study director at the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington.

Princeton, a hardscrabble town on the West Virginia side of Big Walker Mountain, has seen its share of such struggles. Half of downtown storefronts stand empty. The marquee of the movie theater advertises, not a first-run flick, but the theater's current purpose: "soup kitchen." Even that's now closed, due to a broken heater.

In such an environment, poor women are afraid to do anything that might upset the fragile net of government programs they depend upon for support, says Ms. McCabe.

Despite West Virginia's unique aid program, "a lot of people are afraid to get married because they'll lose their benefits," she says. "It makes you feel like you have to depend on a man."

Indeed, evidence of the $100 marriage benefit's effects is scanty. One analysis holds that it swayed the decision to get married of only one woman.

McCabe's own mom raised six kids on her own. McCabe didn't know her biological father until she was in her 30s.

She has a tough time imagining getting a well-paying job in a town where welfare seems to be the only industry that's booming.

Still, she says she's grateful for the government help she gets in supporting her three children - and says it could do even more to help women like her learn how to run a successful marriage.

Indeed, in her small public housing apartment she still finds room to daydream about finding a good man to help her out of the welfare doldrums.

"I still pray for the right one," she says.

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