$1.5B Proposed for “Healthy Marriage”

News item, courtesy of the New York Times (registration required):

Administration officials say they are planning an extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage, especially among low-income couples, and they are weighing whether President Bush should promote the plan next week in his State of the Union address.

For months, administration officials have worked with conservative groups on the proposal, which would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain “healthy marriages.”

Full disclosure: through February 19th I am employed by the Administration for Children and Families. These views are, of course, my own and do not represent those of my agency. Our agency, under the direction of Wade Horn, would be in charge of implementing a healthy marriage initiative for the government. Mr. Horn is not too worried about this $1.5B initiative, which is to be spread over five years. CNN quotes him saying:

“A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is … but you need to place that in context with the rest of the funding of a whole host of other services that will continue to be available to families,” Horn said by telephone, adding that his agency will spend $230 billion in the next five years.

I guess $1.5B is cheaper than putting a manned colony on the moon or sending a manned mission to Mars. But I suspect we’d do a more effective job establishing a base on the moon than fixing this nation’s marriage problem. $1.5B is a lot of money to flush down the drain. In terms of results, failure is the most likely outcome for this money. I would also not be surprised if most of it ends up in the pockets of “faith-based” organizations. The real agenda here might be to find a way to reward Bush’s religious friends with more taxpayer dollars.

I do agree in concept with the idea of healthy marriage. Who wouldn’t? But isn’t there perhaps just a tad bit of condescension in this proposal? It’s primarily oriented at low income couples. The implication then is that people with money, or who are God fearing Republicans, are much more likely to have healthy marriages. It’s those Andy Capp and Flo types that need to learn about healthy marriage. I guess living in those trailer parks and row houses just brings out the beast in you.

I note we won’t allow gays to marry because we insist that marriage is a “sacred” institution. Umm, yeah right. It must be hard for even Bush to say this with a straight face. Apparently marriage can be spontaneous and cheap in some places, like in Las Vegas. Britney Spears (who had to be high on something) found she could suddenly decide to marry her old boyfriend at 5:30 AM in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Once she sobered up and less than 40 hours later she was able to arrange an annulment. While not all states are as liberal as Las Vegas in their wedding requirements, in general it doesn’t take much time or money to get legally married. Some states, like here in Virginia, don’t even require blood work.

I’ve already proposed an innovative idea that will help healthy marriages, or at least stem the divorce rate. Long time readers will recall my proposal for term limited marriages. But even my own siblings were quick to pounce on me for my creativity.

We probably won’t see this one from the Bush Administration but here’s my new innovative idea on healthy marriages: let’s make marriages a lot harder to get into. Let’s start with a mandatory and uniform six month waiting period.

But let’s go further. Let’s require all couples to undergo premarital counseling. Instead of having government-funded counseling, let’s require engaged couples to get their own marriage counseling. Considering how expensive divorce can be, a couple should be more than willing to pony up some money up front to reduce the risk of divorce later on. If couples want to get the counseling from their house of worship or a non-sectarian place that’s fine, but it should be a real premarital counseling, not something rubber stamped. Perhaps it could include discussion sessions with successful long time married couples. My hope is that these old married folk could give couples a realistic idea of what marriage is really all about. Anyhow, let’s require, say, 40 hours of counseling and course work.

During premarital counseling let us insist the proposed couple put together a plan for living together. It should include a proposed budget; discuss how they plan to raise children or whether they plan not to have children; and how they will dissolve their marriage if it doesn’t work out. Particularly if they are of child bearing age let us make sure they take classes in parenting before they tie the knot. A few weeks working in a day care center wiping snotty noses and changing poopy diapers would be a good wake up call. Couples should jointly submit all this evidence to a family judge. Once certification is complete and the six months have elapsed, they could be legally married.

My guess is that if we did this at least half of these marriages wouldn’t even start. I don’t pull that number out of a hat. About half of marriages in our country end in divorce, with the average marriage surviving about seven years. Before those starry eyed couples end up screaming at each other and keeping the neighbors awake, before they start popping out children who bear the emotional wreckage of their immaturity, let them test their mettle a bit. This is the stuff that is at the heart of marriage. Love, sex and commitment are the lures of marriage. But those of us who are old married farts know that at best these are decent foundations for a marriage. Successful marriage is really about two people learning to work through both the everyday and very tough issues together. If you can’t do that before getting married, you are likely to find marriage very daunting.

Across Europe marriage is a dying institution. If a man and woman want a long term relationship they just start living together. If they have children they are both held responsible for their upbringing. In many ways I see this as a better system. It has the virtue of at least being honest. If anyone can leave a relationship at any time then both spouses have natural incentives to work on their relationship. I am not sure that is true in traditional marriage. If anything the marriage contract feels both like a ball and chain around the feet and a reason not to work on relationship issues. “He won’t leave me! He takes our marriage contract seriously!”

For those who want and value marriage I say go for it. But given that we contend we are failing as a country in the marriage department (it’s probably always been this way) let’s make marriage more difficult to start in the first place. Let’s make sure couples go in wide eyed and sober. They need to understand that even for the best and most committed of couples that the failure rate is going to be significant. A successful marriage will require a lot of luck, but it will also require tenacity, an open heart, and a lot of determination.

I don’t think marriage is an institution in need of promotion. If anything it needs to be surrounded by lots of caution signs. It is not for everyone. If we are serious about healthy marriage let’s make it more difficult.

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