Marriage: A panacea?
2. Good for the old
3. Is bridal sweet?
4. Love for sale?
A single mom reads to her daughter. The child
faces longer odds than the daughter of a married couple, but she may
do fine: Statistics apply to groups, not individuals. Photo:
Parents have become scarce in many American
families. Data: U.S. Census Bureau, cited at Divorce Reform Page
If marriage is good for society, and if marriage
rates have plunged, shouldn't government get into the marriage-promotion
biz? It already has: If you're a single mother and short on cash,
West Virginia will pay an extra $100 a month for tying the knot.
The 1996 welfare reform act said that its aim
was to reduce welfare dependency by "promoting job preparation,
work, and marriage" and "by encouraging the formation and maintenance
of two-parent families."
The feds are putting $300-million a year into various types of marriage promotion and education programs, often to develop skills related to making relationships and resolving conflicts, says Daniel Lichter, an Ohio State University professor of sociology who studies marriage.
Will it work? That's a Big Question , contends Lichter. "We don't know. The states don't have a good record, even any record, in marriage promotion. Government is putting a lot of money into experimental programs, evaluations, and demonstration projects to see what works."
Evaluations that simply track the survival of new marriages could miss the point, Lichter wrote in "Is Marriage a Panacea......" (see bibliography): "...whether marriage affords long-term economic benefits ultimately depends on whether disadvantaged women are able to get married, stay married, and marry well (i.e., marry economically attractive men)."
It's no secret that previous government efforts to change
behavior, like smoking
and driving drunk, have produced uneven results.
Lichter, who says he wants to chart a "middle ground" in the debates over marriage, says, "There is no doubt that marriage benefits women," especially low-income women. But he wonders about the real result of encouraging low-income women, especially black women, to "go to school, get a job, marry, and then have a baby."
Having read this far, you might suspect that this sequence
of life choices would cut the appalling racial disparity in marriage
and poverty, but Lichter has his doubts. Even among black and white
women with the same education and record of non-marital births,
he says, "black women still have a poverty rate roughly twice that
of white women," he says, so marriage promotion may fail to meet
a primary objective: cutting welfare costs.
happily married couple takes a break from a pre-wedding party.
Detail of photo by (c)Paul Toepfer
Finally, Lichter says, "Pushing women into
bad marriages is not a long-term solution" because it may result
in an increase in short-term and/or abusive marriages. When Andrew
Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University, studied
more than 2,000 low-income children and mothers, he found that the
rate of marriage did increase, but he wrote that "very few of the
new marriages involved the fathers of their children. ...While stepfathers
bring extra income, they often disturb the family structure. Unfortunately,
the research literature shows that children in stepfamilies fare
no better than children in single-parent families." Cherlin concluded that "it is hard to support healthy marriages
without concurrently supporting unhealthy marriages" (also see "Should
the Government..." in the bibliography.
Indeed, when is a marriage so bad that it harms the kids? Not too long ago, parents justified continuing unhappy marriages because, "we're doing it for the children." In recent years, many parents have flipped that reasoning on its head, justifying divorce because, "a loveless, argumentative marriage would harm the kids."
Obviously, at some level, marital hostility and abuse would justify divorce "for the sake of the children." But some researchers argue that, given the manifold ways that divorce harms kids, persisting a tepid or even conflicted marriage may be good for the kids. For example, Waite cites a study by Paul Amato and Alan Booth, who found that a child's "relations with parents appear to suffer, on average, more when parents divorce than when unhappily married parents stay together" (p. 139, "The Case ..." in the bibliography).
A Philadelphia mural epitomizes the
lasting love of a long marriage.
We'd love to dive into this issue, but feel
obliged to return to the wisdom and effectiveness of marriage promotion.
says that if you want to promote marriage, you should start before
an unwed woman has a child. "My main shtick is that the best marriage
promotion program is one that reduces unwed childbearing, especially
among teens," he told us. "Unwed childbearing reduces the likelihood
that she will marry and will stay married, and affects the quality
of the potential partner, so she is less likely to marry a man who
can get her out of welfare dependency."
Lichter thinks today's marriage-promotion
efforts are "putting the cart before the horse. There is no doubt
that marriage benefits women, but unwed childbearing is a major
barrier to a healthy, lasting relationship."
Newlyweds with the bride's family. This happy
bunch, with its share of divorces and single parenthood, unmarried
and married couples, shows that statistics aren't the whole story.
One thing is certain: The current debate about
marriage reflects a continuing cultural war. "I get criticism from
the left," says Lichter, "mostly about marriage as an oppressive
institution that keeps women in their place" or a reluctance to
push women into abusive relationships. On the other side, he says, "are
the conservative, family-values folks who think that marriage will
solve the problems, will take care of these issues, will civilize
men so they will become better providers. It's a really divisive
The ultimate political question, Lichter thinks, is whether the failed family is the cause or the effect of social problems. "Conservatives tend to say that the reason we have poverty and social malaise is that the family has gone to hell in a handbasket. Liberals say you are blaming the victim; the problem is located in society, where poverty, etc., have a destabilizing effect on the family."
Rather than disentangle the knot of cause and effect, Lichter says, "I see it as a self-reinforcing problem, there may be structural changes in the economy and culture that are destabilizing marriage, reinforcing inequality and poverty. And that in turn reinforces the retreat from marriage."
Want to get hitched in our marriage bibliography?