February 13, 2004

Marriage Initiative does gays a disservice

While gays are throwing themselves at the altar, the White House is throwing the altar at straights. Bush's Marriage Initiative, a $1.5 billion package, purports to strengthen straight, low-income marriages through counseling; education; and, sometimes, cold, hard cash. Like most apple pie proposals, it's a mixed bag. Providing desired resources to the underserved, such as premarital and marital counseling, is constructive and makes sense. However, the Marriage Initiative doesn't merely seek to give people what they want. Targeting high school students, single mothers, and unmarried couples with children, the Marriage Initiative is hoping to tell people what they want, and that's where its politics veer from compassionate to creepy.

Ham-handed marriage advocates have often whittled the complex issue of poverty and marriage down to a moral failure on the part of the poor, effectively saying, "It's not the economy—it's your marriage, stupid." Among the marriage-promotion programs recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services are those of West Virginia, which offers low-income women $100 a month to marry the fathers of their children, and Oklahoma, which penalizes unmarried couples by reducing their children's welfare benefits. To the bill's proponents, it doesn't matter what your problem is—downsizing, drug abuse, lack of education—the solution comes with a white dress.

Proponents argue that a two-parent household is inherently more stable than a single parent one, both for women and their children. Unfortunately, they're wrong on both counts. Sure, healthy two-parent families are terrific, but in disadvantaged communities a myriad of factors often leave women better off single. High unemployment and incarceration rates among men in low-income communities, in particular, have single mothers dodging the veil, not only for their sake, but also for that of their kids. Mary Parke, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, notes that, "when parents have a highly discordant relationship, children are often better off in the long run if their parents divorce." No one would argue that single parenthood is a cakewalk. But neither, it should be noted, is marriage. To quote Texas Representative Ron Paul, as I so often do, "I am skeptical, to say the least, of claims that government education programs can fix the deep-rooted cultural problems responsible for the decline of the American family." Paul and I may see the American family a little differently, but I think we can agree that the folks who brought us "Just Say No" would have trouble selling the Fountain of Youth, let alone a lifelong commitment to another human being.

What's more, the $1.5 billion measure comes at the expense of proven anti-poverty programs that have actually increased marriage rates in the past. The Minnesota Family Investment Program, for example, helped families work their way out of poverty through three routes: job training, earned-income disregards, and childcare subsidies. It also happened to raise marriage rates. When economic stresses are allayed, it's no surprise that marriages fare better.

The old adage says that women want both bread and roses. The Marriage Initiative offers only roses, and at the expense of the bread—$1.5 billion of bread, to be exact. At any rate, the single-minded promotion of marriage is a task better left to my Jewish grandmother than to the federal government. And she can do it for the cost of a long-distance phone call.