Waldlaw Blog

Monday, November 20, 2006

Promoting Marriage

The front page of The Wall Street Journal this morning has an article entitled "How a U.S. Official Promotes Marriage to Help Poor Kids: To Encourage Couples to Wed, Wade Horn Plans to Spend $500 Million in Five Years." Here's the first paragraph of the article: "The notion that government can help children escape poverty by promoting marriage for their parents was once considered a fringe idea from right field. It is now federal policy." First, I have to comment that under our current administration, far too much of federal policy could be accurately described as "fringe ideas from right field." That said, the thing that boggles my mind about the concept that promoting marriage will cure poverty is the extent to which it represents an over-simplification of a very complex problem. PROBLEM: Children raised by unwed parents are more likely to live in poverty. SOLUTION: Their parents should get married. (Here my mother, the bio-chemist, interjects: PROBLEM: Children raised by unwed parents are more likely to have bad teeth. SOLUTION: Their parents should get married -- cavities cured!) Let me quickly say that I have absolutely nothing against marriage. I was raised by parents who remained together in a loving and stable marriage until my father died. (Actually, I'm not at all convinced that their marriage ended when my father died -- it is undeniable that he continues to be a daily presence in my mother's life almost 10 years later.) But I had the privilege of hearing directly from the folks involved in the federal marriage initiative last summer, when I attended the conference of the International Society for Family Law, which was held in Salt Lake City, Utah and was hosted by Brigham Young University (a veritable hotbed of fringe ideas from right field, as far as I could tell!). The research these folks rely on takes children raised outside of marriage and lumps them all together, creating a category that is far too broad to have any use whatsoever. The category includes children conceived by teenagers in the back seat of a Chevy; children whose mothers left their fathers to escape domestic violence; children who had a parent die; children whose parents divorced when they were young; children who were raised by stable, committed, non-marital couples; children who were born to or adopted by single parents who wanted them desperately; and children who were born accidentally to single people who had no desire to have children and no way to support them. Furthermore, the research completely leaves out subtleties like race and class from the analysis. I have no problem buying that children do best when raised in a way that maximizes stability and safety, and that for many children that stability and safety comes in the form of a loving marriage between their parents. But for many other children, the stability and safety they need comes from a grandmother who is always there for them; their same-sex moms or dads who can't get married but love and provide for them nonetheless; their tribe or another circle of loving adults who provide them with the guidance and affection they need; or the one mother or one father who raises them with love and integrity as a single parent. None of which has anything at all to do with poverty. If the goal is to raise children out of poverty, wouldn't it make more sense to put $500 million into after-school programs in targeted neighborhoods; into job training and substance abuse treatment and prevention; into programs designed to improve the well-being of the communities in which children are raised, and not just the individual parents raising them; into desperately-needed improvements to our foster care system? I have no doubt that some couples need external encouragement to make the commitment to each other and to their children that marriage represents. But is that really the job of the federal government? At a price tag of $500 million? As federal policy, this seems to be much more about promoting a particular social agenda than about raising children out of poverty. If the government really wants to help children, there are a myriad ways to do so. Let's get on with it, and stop debating the pro's and con's of marriage.


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