National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  November 28, 2003

Testing marriage as cure for social ills

The answer to our opening question, “Can marriage cure poverty?” is “We don’t know.”

Some may see in the Bush administration’s new initiative to promote marriage -- as a way to turn around and stabilize the lives of poor people -- one more thinly veiled attempt to accommodate the ideologues of the far right, including the religious right. It would be a tidy way to mollify that wing of the party, viewed as essential to the president in his reelection bid.

On the other hand, who could argue that solid marriages would not enhance the common good? The numbers are staggering. As Joe Feuerherd notes in his report (see story on Page 3), a third of all children today are born of unmarried parents; that number jumps to nearly 70 percent for African-American children.

It doesn’t take a particular ideology to be able to look around the landscape and see the ill effects of the great American breakup. Life becomes more difficult for everyone, kids as well as the extended family, when marriages collapse. This is not to argue that couples should stay together at all costs, or to suggest that divorce, at times, is not the best alternative for all involved. It is simply to recognize a reality in early 21st-century America. That beyond the poor sections of our cities, among the educated and those who have the means to live comfortably, for every two marriages in the 1990s in the United States, there was one divorce.

Life arguably is even more difficult for children who have never known the anchor of two parents, for lives where parental absence is compounded by poverty, hunger, dangerous neighborhoods and lousy schools.

So, why not an initiative to boost marriage skills among the poor? It seems that on a purely pragmatic level it makes some sense. While ideology may not be a concern, we are inclined to take issue with the syllogistic underpinnings of the administration’s case. As the report points out, it is beyond dispute that “children in homes where dad and mom are present are far less likely to live in poverty than households led by a single parent.” The administration argues, then, that one way to get children out of poverty is to encourage their parents to marry.

The equation is not so neat and simple.

It doesn’t take a certain ideology, either, to observe that the effects of poverty itself may be a significant reason why marriage is a low priority for some. The best training in the world may fall on deaf ears if the rent is due and there’s no money; if children are sick and there’s no health care coverage; if violence lurks outside the door; if the neighborhood school is more holding tank than educational facility; if life is a whirl of finding a way to get to work, getting kids to day care, picking them up, shopping, cooking, all on minimum wage and without help from a spouse.

Such issues turn the question back to a pragmatic point: Is spending $1.5 billion to encourage marriage the best way to deal with poverty?

The administration claims its program is experimental. It certainly is advisable to go slowly, to measure progress closely and to scrutinize the dispersal and use of federal funds.

It’s an idea that may have some merit. It deserves testing, like any young relationship. Let’s just not get wedded to it too quickly.

National Catholic Reporter, November 28, 2003

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