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Government as Matchmaker
By Cathy Young | February 25, 2002
Should the government be in the business of building better marriages?
That's the question raised by the proposal, in the Bush administration budget for next year, to spend up to $100 million to promote marriage among the poor.
The idea seems to be popular with conservatives. Robert Rector, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, calls this program ''the single most important thing that government can do to increase the well-being of American children.''
But there are also strong objections, particularly from women's groups. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, scoffs that the same folks who say that they want to ''get government out of people's lives'' now want the government ''pushing people ... to get married.'' One possible danger, say Gandy and other feminists, is that women will be encouraged to marry or stay married to abusive partners.
Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, dismisses these concerns as groundless. The goal of the initiative, he points out, is not to coerce anyone into marriage; it is simply to ''support activities that help couples who choose marriage for themselves develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage.''
As a model, Horn points to a two-year-old pilot program in Oklahoma which includes pro-marriage lectures and ''relationship rallies'' on college campuses, as well as workshops on communication and conflict resolution now being offered at schools and community centers.
Obviously, we're not talking about shotgun marriages arranged by Big Brother (though the workshops in Oklahoma have been made virtually mandatory for welfare recipients). Nevertheless, federally funded marriage skills workshops do seem to fly in the face of the core conservative message that the government should keep its nose out of people's private lives.
Of course, the charge of hypocrisy can be reversed against critics of the marriage-boosting initiative who have no problem with government-sponsored social engineering when it furthers their agenda. Would NOW and other feminist groups be up in arms if federal money were being spent on programs to promote nontraditional family roles or gender-neutral child-rearing? Indeed, right now, federal grants go to campus programs that teach politically correct rules of courtship - for instance, that sex must be preceded by explicit verbal negotiations to establish consent - under the guise of preventing date rape. Talk about the government being in our bedrooms.
What's more, the feminist criticism of the proposed program often cuts dangerously close to male-bashing. Is it really impossible to encourage marriage without encouraging women to marry abusive men? It is true that a high percentage of women on welfare have experienced domestic assault, though the studies on the subject make no distinction between battering and low-level mutual violence; but this doesn't mean that every potential mate these women may meet is a batterer.
It's safe to say that many of the activists who make these claims have a jaundiced view of marriage and men, and attach little importance to the role of fathers in children's lives.
However, just because the critics of the marriage initiative are misguided about some things doesn't necessarily mean the initiative is good. Horn is right that children generally fare much better, not only economically but socially and emotionally, in two-parent households than in single-parent ones. There is ample evidence to support this. The emergence of single motherhood as a new norm in some segments of society is indeed a worrisome trend.
But can pervasive cultural attitudes be reversed by lectures and rallies? And can marriage skills workshops really help? Even individualized marital counseling is far from a surefire way to keep a marriage together. A large workshop that offers one-size-fits-all solutions to people with individual personalities and distinct problems wouldn't seem to hold out much promise.
Besides, both low marriage rates and high divorce rates in low-income communities are related to plenty of factors that have nothing to do with poor communication - things like financial stress, lack of job skills, and in many cases substance abuse.
The problem of fatherlessness is real. A national initiative that throws taxpayer money at untested programs (the pilot project in Oklahoma has yet to yield tangible results) and turns Uncle Sam into a marriage counselor is not a real solution. And it's not a very conservative solution, either.
Clearly, some conservatives are just as selective in their opposition to statist social engineering as are some liberals and feminists. Two wrongs don't make a right.