In opening her presentation at a Quad Cities appearance on April 12, Maggie Gallagher explained what the "Marriage Movement" is not. Gallagher, an affiliate scholar with the Institute for American Values, said the Marriage Movement is not a polarizing political issue or a set of political initiatives. She said there's wide agreement that our culture must change trends that over the past four decades have made the fragmented family - in which children grow up without two parents who are married - "a common, even a majority, experience."

So why, then, is the Marriage Movement so divisive, and why does Gallagher herself propose a handful of legislative remedies? Why did President George W. Bush propose $300 million to fund welfare programs that encourage marriage, and why have many members of Congress - both Republicans and Democrats - spoken against the idea?

These questions provided the subtext for a debate on the merits of the Marriage Movement as part of the Illinois Council on Family Relations annual conference, held April 12 at The Mark of the Quad Cities. Gallagher squared off with Stephanie Coontz, co-chair of the Council for Contemporary Families, which opposes many proposals that promote marriage instead of addressing other social problems.

The Marriage Movement has grown in recent years, in response to what its backers call the failure of the "divorce revolution" of the 1970s. "When marriages fail, children suffer," starts a summarizing paragraph in the article "The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles." It continues: "For many, the suffering continues for years. For some it never ends. Children suffer when marriages between parents do not take place, when parents divorce, and when spouses fail to create a 'good-enough' family bond. We recognize that there are abusive marriages that should end in separation or divorce. We firmly believe that every family raising children deserves respect and support. Yet at the same time, we cannot forget that not every family form is equally likely to protect children's well-being."

Gallagher boils that down simply: "We have overpromised what divorce can give you."

Supporters of the Marriage Movement believe that children are better off when their parents are married. The movement differentiates, even, between a married couple and two parents who live together but are not married. Marriage is a "public, permanent commitment," Gallagher explained. "Marriage comes with a certain set of expectations of how you're supposed to behave toward one another."

Gallagher ran down a litany of ills that are statistically more likely to befall children who are raised outside of a family headed by a married couple: They have higher rates of poverty, crime, school failure, physical illness, and mental illness; they're more likely to become unwed mothers; they're less likely to go to or graduate from college; and they're less likely to have warm, close relationships with both parents.

"Form affects function," Gallagher said.

In other words, members of the Marriage Movement don't advocate marriage for moral or religious reasons. Marriage creates social goods, they argue, that benefit society as a whole.

Nobody disputes the research that relates marriage to the well-being of children. Coontz is surprisingly supportive of the institution. She started her opening statement at the debate by saying, "Two good parents are usually better than one," and added that divorce is traumatic for children and their parents, and that raising a child outside of marriage is a "challenge." She also advocated eliminating marriage disincentives that 16 states have, ensuring the Earned Income Tax Credit doesn't punish people who get married, and giving couples access to pre- and post-marital counseling. After Coontz's presentation, Gallagher said, "We're part of the same movement."

But Coontz and Gallagher differ greatly, and their discussion at The Mark was spirited. The key difference is that while Gallagher sees marriage as a solution to a variety of social ills, Coontz does not. Both support programs that help couples work out their troubles, but they disagree whether government and society should be encouraging couples to tie the knot.

Divisive Political Proposals

Gallagher is correct in saying that the Marriage Movement doesn't represent a single political perspective or only certain political issues. The trouble is that the Marriage Movement is being adopted by political leaders and turned into divisive political proposals.

Take Bush's initiative, which he announced in February. He proposed that as part of the re-authorization of welfare reform, the federal government should set aside $300 million for programs that promote marriage among people on public assistance.

Gallagher herself advocates specific legislative proposals. In her April 16 paper "Marriage & Public Policy: What Can Government Do?" Gallagher outlines a handful of initiatives, including funding pre-marital education, marriage counseling, marriage mentoring, and marital-education programs for "at-risk couples and communities"; adding an "explicit marriage message" to government-funded programs that fight teen pregnancy; and creating divorce-education programs. (Making divorce more difficult, or putting requirements on it, goes against the trend toward making divorce easier. Iowa, for example, is a no-fault divorce state.)

Gallagher asked two questions, meant to be rhetorical, that she thinks make obvious that the aims of the Marriage Movement are honorable and important: Would we like more marriages to succeed? Would we like more marriages to take place?

Few would disagree that as a culture we'd like to see fewer divorces. The proposals Gallagher outlined in her paper apply primarily to the first question, and Coontz agrees that pre- and post-marital counseling should be more widely available. (She also supports better access to relationship counseling in general, whether a couple intends on marrying or not.)

Other programs are designed to build better marriages. In Muscatine earlier this year, for example, a group of 30 religious leaders signed a "Marriage Matters Agreement" that says they will require couples they are marrying to attend four pre-marital counseling sessions before the ceremony.

But the second question - whether to encourage marriage - is more difficult, and Bush's proposal is clearly aimed at getting unmarried couples to tie the knot.

Another policy designed to increase marriage is in place in West Virginia. The state offers a cash bonus to couples on public assistance who marry.

And here's where the Marriage Movement gets into trouble. While the Marriage Movement claims to be nonpartisan and nonsectarian, its aims align with traditional conservative, Republican values. The goal of getting more couples married plays into conservative disapproval of single parenthood and cohabitation.

But it's not as cut-and-dried as that. Because there's a strong correlation between marriage and a variety of important socio-economic factors - including the well-being of children as well as the health and economic status of the parents - the Marriage Movement has attracted Republicans who normally don't like to delve into people's private lives and Democrats who object to GOP moralizing. The amply demonstrated social goods that seem related to two-married-parent families allow politicians to cast the issue in a context larger than personal preference.

Yet even though government could in theory play a role in strengthening marriage, there's one reason to fear it: Government programs are rarely designed with the finesse and subtlety necessary to solve complex problems.

Look, for example, at a bill narrowly passed earlier this year in the Iowa Senate. The legislation would impose a 30-day waiting period on a marriage license, but if a couple completes pre-marital counseling, the waiting period is only three days, and the couple would get a discount on its marriage license. The legislation's aim is noble - encouraging pre-marital counseling - but it would fail miserably, because the financial incentive is just a few dollars.

Also problematic is the government's tendency to treat symptoms rather than causes, especially in light of the debate about whether the benefits of marriage are even caused by marriage.

Chicken or the Egg?

Fundamentally, the divide on the economic value of marriage stems from a chicken-and-egg question: Does marriage help people out of poverty, or does poverty keep people from marrying?

There's plenty of evidence to back either point of view, and one's perspective on the question will invariably lead to a certain set of solutions. If one believes that marriage can reduce poverty, one is more likely to favor encouraging marriage, as Gallagher does. If, on the other hand, one believes that poverty prevents marriage, one is more likely to support a better social-service safety net, as Coontz does.

Coontz argues that the institution of marriage is not going to be fixed by new laws or programs, and that spending so much time and effort encouraging marriage ignores a multitude of other social problems that deserve attention.

"Such proposals reflect the widespread assumption that failure to marry, rather than unemployment, poor education, and lack of affordable child care, is the primary cause of child poverty," Coontz and Nancy Folbre said in a paper prepared for a conference running from April 26 to 28. But "poverty is a cause as well as a consequence of non-marriage and of marital disruption," they say.

"A study of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth confirms that poor women, whatever their age, and regardless of whether or not they are or have ever been on welfare, are less likely to marry than women who are not poor," Coontz and Folbre write. "The notion that we could end child poverty by marrying off impoverished women does not take into account the realities of life among the population most likely to be poor. It is based on abstract scenarios that ignore the many ways in which poverty diminishes people's ability to build and sustain stable family relationships."

Coontz said that blanket proclamations about the benefits of marriage lack "nuance." She points to several exceptions to the claim that marriage provides financial and well-being benefits to both parents and children. She noted, for example, that for African Americans with the lowest economic status, single-parent children actually perform better than kids with two married parents.

And, perhaps even more importantly: "In 2001, only 1.2 percent of children of single mothers with a college degree who worked full-time year round lived in poverty," Coontz and Folbre note. "For single mothers with some college working full-time, the poverty rate was less than 8 percent."

The key in these statistics, though, is "working full-time." Here the authors make the case for subsidized child care, a traditionally liberal issue: "The shortage of publicly subsidized child care makes it difficult for them [single mothers] to work full-time."

Coontz also notes that the erosion of the institution of marriage has much to do with cultural factors. The decline in marriage is part of a larger "crisis" of the reorganization of society, she said.

"Marriages have been de-stabilized ... by a whole lot of things we are not going to reverse," Coontz said. Over the past 200 years, she said, changes in society have altered the role of marriage. Matrimony used to divide labor and provide a mechanism for the passage of property, but it no longer does these things effectively. Women's role in society has also changed dramatically in the past 80 years, making marriage more difficult. "This is an international phenomenon," Coontz said.

"I'm not saying marriage is on its way out," she added. But a certain level of "family diversity" - single mothers, cohabitation, and gay parents - is here to stay. "We have to work on many more fronts than the current Marriage Movement is prepared to work on."

The pro-marriage agenda, she said, is not a substitute for policy that reaches farther. Rather than focusing on marriage, the government needs to "support family at a structural level," providing services to people who don't marry as well as those who do.

And whether you buy into that probably depends primarily on which side of the political spectrum you sit.

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