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Last Updated: Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 10:06 GMT
Wedded to the value of marriage
By Clare Murphy
BBC News Online

The marriage workshop promises to teach its participants how to fight fairly, and ultimately, how to forgive one another. It's also free - funded by the state of Oklahoma.

mother and baby
Mothers should be married, the administration believes
Oklahoma has long taken an interest in the marital bliss - or rather discord - of its populace.

Since 1998, when state economists concluded that being single and being poor were interrelated, millions of dollars have been spent on trying to bring people together, and keep them that way, through state-wide training in marriage and advertising which promotes the value of the institution.

Similar programmes run elsewhere. So convinced are West Virginian officials of the benefits of marriage for both the couple and the children that female welfare claimants are entitled to $100 more a month if they tie the knot.

Marriage initiatives are aimed at poor single mothers and low-income couples undecided as to whether they should wed: lone parent families - the majority of whom are headed by a female - account for nearly 60% of all welfare cases in the US.

Strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children, and stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy
President George W Bush
The hope is that marriage will provide these women, and their children, with a route out of poverty and alleviate the burden they place on the state. The thesis is simple: if failure to marry - or divorce - means poverty, marriage must enhance wealth.

To date, the projects have been state-initiated and mainly state-funded. But the Bush administration likes what it sees: plans have been hatched for the release of $1.5bn over the next five years to transform marriage initiatives into a nationwide priority.

Academic argument

The notion that children fare better when raised by married parents is uncontroversial in the United States.

Academics from both sides of the political divide - as well as those in the middle - are convinced by research that suggests married parents are better equipped to protect their children against the scourges of drug addiction, crime, and teenage pregnancy than their unmarried counterparts.

But there the accord ends.

There is a very legitimate concern that people who really shouldn't be together are being pushed together
Dr Isabelle Sawhill
On a point of ideology, there are concerns about whether the state should have any role in structuring people's personal lives.

Questions have also been raised about the thesis that marriage can provide immunity against poverty. A number of observers do not accept that lack of money is a consequence of lack of marriage - rather they see failure to get hitched as a symptom of being poor. They also worry about the diversion of precious resources which could be focused on other forms of poverty alleviation.

A third point of contention is whether such efforts encourage poor women to consolidate inappropriate, and sometimes violent, relationships.

"There is a very legitimate concern that people who really shouldn't be together are being pushed together. There may be very good reasons why some women choose not to marry the father of their child - and the administration doesn't seem to take this on board," says Dr Isabel Sawhill, a fellow at the Brookings Institution think-tank, who believes that marriage is, in principle, a desirable goal.

"But the other issue is this: does it work? What exactly are we throwing money after?"

Intervention

Empirical, statistical evidence for the success of marriage initiatives - whether in terms of encouraging people to marry or preventing divorce - is not readily available.

This is essentially a means of offering lower income couples the kind of help and guidance with their marriages that the more affluent can already afford
Department of Health and Human Services
The Oklahoma project was started in 1999 with the aim of cutting the state's divorce rate by one third by the year 2010.

The goalpost has been somewhat shifted over the years since inception: officials say they are now less interested in the cold hard facts of how many people have got married or divorced and more concerned with the broader aim of "strengthening families".

But those dealing on a day-to-day basis with the women targeted by the scheme say they are pleased with the results.

"I had some initial reservations," says Teresa Biffle, director of the Oklahoma Women's Haven, a shelter for victims of domestic violence. "But as long as one is aware of the issues, these kind of efforts can be very useful - not just in helping couples deal with their problems and keeping them together, but also in helping them to break up - if need be."

"There were concerns about whether it was right to promote marriage in this way, and particularly among those who were suffering from domestic violence. But essentially this is about building and preserving healthy relationships - that's a positive thing. I believe that and the clients do too."

Officials in Oklahoma say that while they are pleased with the progress they have made, federal funding will transform the project by enabling them to increase the number of poor women they are able to target.

"Currently we train people to spot those who might benefit from the marriage programme - those collecting food stamps, child welfare and the like," says Candy Cox, director of training and resources for the Oklahoma marriage programme.

"The extra money will mean we can significantly widen our focus with targeted intervention, particularly among unwed parents about to give birth. We know that having a child creates a 'magic moment' to bring couples together."

There is no question that the marriage initiative is about state interference, as the Department of Health and Human Services freely admits.

"But the state is involved anyway in people's lives at so many levels, so it's a redundant criticism," said a spokesman for the department.

"This is essentially a means of offering lower income couples the kind of help and guidance with their marriages that the more affluent can already afford."




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