Marriage initiative lost in culture war
As the debate over same-sex marriage rages, a promising proposal languishes.
Orlando Sentinel, April 11, 2004
By Elizabeth Marquardt | Special to the Chicago Tribune
On a weekday in mid-January, readers of The New York Times woke up to this front-page headline: "Bush Plans $1.5 Billion Drive for Promotion of Marriage."
Opening with the words, "Administration officials say they are planning an extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage, especially among low-income couples," the article went on to say the
money is earmarked for "training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain 'healthy marriages.' "
The reporters noted that the then-recent Massachusetts decision legalizing gay marriage made the
initiative especially timely and quoted an unnamed presidential adviser who said: "This is a way for the president to address the concerns of conservatives and to solidify his conservative base."
When the story ran, the connection between the Bush administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative, the battle against same-sex marriage and election-year politicking seemed airtight.
There was only one problem: The Healthy Marriage Initiative predates, by years, our national controversy about same-sex marriage that was set off by the Massachusetts decision last November.
Only recently has President Bush come out strongly against same-sex marriage by endorsing a constitutional amendment that opposes it.
While some conservatives in the Bush administration may have seen the Healthy Marriage Initiative as a way to appeal to their base, marriage education has never been a conservative idea and offers
nothing to conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage.
If anything, marriage education is a liberal idea. Like drug or sex education, marriage education
teaches couples communication and behavioral techniques that promote healthy marriages.
Government-funded marriage education does not force people to marry or stay married, nor does it
require them to participate in the programs. Indeed, one of the central goals of marriage educators is to prevent people from entering or staying in marriages that are abusive or otherwise unhealthy.
These kinds of services and support are already available to people with the means to pay for them.
Publicly funded marriage promotion makes marriage education available to low-income people, too.
Unfortunately, the intention of the initiative was lost in the maelstrom of media coverage that rapidly followed. Within days of the Times story, Reuters issued its own take that even more strongly
portrayed the Healthy Marriage Initiative as a conservative attack on gay marriage. It read, "The Bush White House is definitely marriage-minded: healthy marriage, sanctified marriage. Except for the kind
of marriage that might become legal in Massachusetts: marriage of gay and lesbian partners."
The piece was one of the most-emailed articles on Yahoo that day.
Other newspapers across the country and around the world took off with the same interpretation. In London, the liberal Guardian newspaper warned, "Avoiding the words 'heterosexual marriage,'
[Bush] administration officials are referring to 'healthy' marriages."
Back at home the Boston Globe chimed in, quoting one pollster, " 'Healthy marriages' sounds like a
traditional value, which is red meat to married voters." The original Times article did note, deep in the piece, that because social-science research strongly suggests that children fare best when their parents
are married, "some liberals have also expressed interest in marriage-education programs."
But any such subtlety was utterly lost when the national and international media sensed a controversy and ran with it.
Indeed, this seemed to be the initiative that everyone loved to hate. When reporters and editorialists were not accusing it of being a conservative attack on gay marriage they had many other criticisms. The Times opined that the money would be better spent on activities such as job training, health
insurance or pregnancy-prevention programs. Former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich wrote similarly in The Washington Post that if we want to attack poverty we should attack the lack of jobs.
The Post admitted that a case for funding marriage promotion could be made but said in an era of budget deficits the current proposal was much too expensive.
However, these more-serious looks at the proposal were few and far between. Across the country, in newspapers small and large, writers continued to rail against the Healthy Marriage Initiative, calling it
a cynical attack on gay marriage.
So what is this initiative that everybody loves to hate -- and why should Americans reconsider its merits for themselves?
The first part of the initiative is proposed legislation, introduced in Congress in 2002, that would allocate federal money for marriage education and promotion as part of welfare reform.
Strengthening marriage was part of the welfare-reform law signed by President Clinton in 1996.
The second part consists of several marriage-research, evaluation, training and demonstration
projects initiated in 2001 by the Department of Health and Human Services. The proposed program is funded with money still available from the 1996 bonus payments, not with money diverted from other important welfare activities.
Unfortunately, in the wake of all the press coverage the Healthy Marriage Initiative is teetering on the edge of destruction. The House passed its version last year. But earlier this month, the Senate
deadlocked, with Republican leaders unable to get the necessary votes to end a filibuster by Democrats seeking to include other amendments in reauthorization of the 1996 welfare-reform bill.
It would be a huge loss if the Healthy Marriage Initiative dies now. Just-published research is showing that communities that adopt a Community Marriage Policy -- the kind of program that would be
available for funding if the bill is passed -- are having a measurable impact in reducing divorce rates.
Such communities have seen a decline in their divorce rate almost double that of others that did not
have such a policy in place. These efforts so far have been all-volunteer and could have been even more successful if they were federally funded.
Marriage is a hot topic -- same-sex marriage, that is. From coast to coast our nation is caught up in an urgent debate between the rights of gays and lesbians to marry and the possible social implications
of changing marriage laws.
It is anyone's guess how this particular culture war will ultimately end.
But it would be a huge loss if all other discussions about marriage and its importance for children were
drowned out by our newest culture war, and it would be especially tragic if an important piece of legislation were killed because it was wrongly portrayed as a political ploy advanced by those who oppose same-sex marriage.
On its own, legislation to support healthy marriages will not bring people out of poverty. Jobs matter, education matters, health care matters. But like jobs, education and health care, marriage is an
important and legitimate area for public policy to address.
Some argue that government should have no role in marriage, but government is already neck-deep in divorce.
The government tells divorced couples how to divide their finances, how often they can see their children, how much support they have to pay for them and much more. Moreover, an extraordinary
amount of taxpayer spending goes to social problems that often stem from family breakdown.
We now know that children do best, on average, when they are raised by their own, two married
parents. We also know that, across all income groups, races, religions and backgrounds, a desire that an overwhelming number of Americans share is to get married and have their marriage last.
As social programs go, $1.5 billion spent over five years is fairly modest. Let's give it a chance.
Elizabeth Marquardt is an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York City. She
lives in Lake Forest, Ill.