Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005
The Marriage Movement: E Pluribus Unum
Based in part on research showing that marriage is good for adults and children, strengthening marriage has become a goal of both public and private initiatives in recent years.
Proponents of strengthening marriage form a diverse group. Many are in religious communities, especially conservative Protestant denominations. Their aim is to rebuild a traditional model of lifelong monogamous marriage. Others-—practitioners and professionals in various fields-—are motivated by concerns about rising divorce rates or about the welfare of couples, individual adults, and children. Many are therapy-oriented and seek to educate or counsel people about strategies and skills to build healthy relationships, whether through marriage or otherwise. Others belong to fatherhood groups concerned about absent fathers. Still others are state government officials concerned about the problems of the poor (see the article by Robin Dion in this volume). Most of these latter are affiliated with programs targeting unmarried parents, many growing out of changes in welfare law in the late 1990s.
The dramatic transformation of American households and families from the late 1960s through the late 1980s came on the heels of one of the most homogeneous cultural periods of U.S. history in matters of marriage and living arrangements. The postwar era of the 1950s featured historically high fertility rates, low divorce rates, and youthful ages at marriage. The postwar economy and veterans' programs significantly expanded the middle class. Attendance at religious services was high. Culturally, it was the most “familistic” decade of the century: the family was understood as the crucial social institution, both for the individual and for society as a whole. Familism, an ideology that emerged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, associated the prevailing family principles of marriage, childbearing, motherhood, commitment, and sacrifice for family with a sense of sacredness. It stressed sexual fidelity in marriage, chastity before marriage, intensive child-rearing, a commitment to a lifelong marriage, and high levels of expressive interaction among family members.35
Against this backdrop, the demographic and cultural trends of the 1960s and 1970s raised grave concern among conservative religious communities, who saw most of these trends as signs of decay. Feminism, the sexual revolution, legalized abortion, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, and open challenges to authority energized the rise of a religiously affiliated movement to restore the basic features of 1950s familism. The new Christian Right, which included such groups as Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority, Beverly LaHaye's Concerned Women for America, and James Dobson's Focus on the Family (later the Family Research Council), became a powerful political force, mobilizing millions of voters and establishing lobbying groups with close ties to Republican leaders and conservative members of Congress. More generally, conservative Protestantism has been, and remains, an important force in matters of the family because its adherents are very active, devoting more time and money to their churches and affiliated organizations than any other major religious group in America.36
With increased sexual freedom driving many of the liberalizing trends of the later twentieth century, it is not surprising that sexual matters were the focus of much of the reaction. As Karen Armstrong notes in her historical review of conservative religious movements, the fundamentalists of the 1970s and 1980s “associated the integrity and even the survival of their society with the traditional position of women.” Feminism, homosexuality, and abortion were central themes in a religious movement to restore family values.37
Others involved in the marriage debate include professionals, practitioners, and social scientists with an interest in divorce and marital stability. Psychologists have analyzed interpersonal behaviors and strategies associated with various outcomes of relationships and have identified styles of conflict resolution, coping, and communication as critical elements in marriage. Demographers and sociologists have identified background traits such as cohabitation, parental divorce, young age at marriage, and low levels of religiousness as strong predictors of divorce.
About twenty-five years ago, a field now known as couples education or marriage education began integrating such research into therapeutic approaches to helping couples prepare for or prevent problems in relationships. Couples education, offered in classlike settings, teaches both individuals and couples strategies to avoid the known risks to marriage.
Yet another group of professionals launched programs to promote and help fathers. Fatherhood programs, many in state government, focus on pregnancy prevention (most target young men), child support enforcement and the establishment of paternity, visitation issues, and services for poor fathers, especially those unable to comply with child support orders. Many national organizations support fatherhood. The National Fatherhood Initiative, founded in 1994, seeks to increase the involvement of fathers with their children through a range of educational and training programs. The National Center for Fathering, founded in 1990, sponsors seminars for corporations and schools to encourage greater family involvement by fathers. The Families and Work Institute's Fatherhood Project works with corporations, government agencies, and local fatherhood groups to develop father-friendly programs and policies, such as paternity leave. Other groups supporting fatherhood include the National Partnership for Community Leadership and the National Practitioners Network for Fathers and Families.
Several independent professionals, national professional organizations, and educational and research institutions have also launched efforts on behalf of marriage. Diane Solee, a marriage and family therapist who coined the term “marriage education,” founded the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in 1995. She sponsors a national clearinghouse for marriage information, organizes an annual national conference called “Smart Marriages,” and maintains web sites and listservs to provide additional information. The Center for Law and Social Policy, which maintains a section on families and couples, publishes policy-related materials and maintains a web site with links to such information. The Institute for American Values maintains a Council on Families that sponsors conferences, publishes original research, and reviews public policy relating to marriage. Academic centers at universities and at well respected think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute, and the Heritage Foundation produce analyses of and take positions on issues related to marriage.38 And marriage therapists, religious leaders, and think tank intellectuals have launched community marriage initiatives, typically in couple-to-couple formats that target entire communities. In the mid-1980s, journalist Michael McManus began promoting a faith based project called “Marriage Savers” that involved couple-to-couple mentoring organized through religious congregations.
Policy analyst Theodora Ooms and her colleagues trace the origins of public policy efforts to promote marriage to the late 1980s, as evidence accumulated to document the adverse effects on children of growing up in a single-parent home. State efforts focused initially on making divorce more difficult, through means such as covenant marriage, and subsequently on marriage and couples education programs.39 (See box for more details about state and federal marriage programs.)
The economic implications of single-parenthood have featured conspicuously in state debates about family policy. In 1999, for example, Oklahoma governor Frank Keating launched the nation's largest marriage initiative, supported with $10 million of federal welfare funds, to cut the state's high divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates. Keating's move came on the heels of a 1998 report showing that his state's economy was flagging partly because high rates of family breakdown were driving many Oklahomans into poverty. Likewise, Louisiana first authorized covenant marriage (see box) in 1997, following legislative debate highlighting the costs of poverty resulting from divorce.40
At the federal level, concern about marriage was driven primarily by increasing rates of births to unmarried women and corresponding claims on public assistance. Activists who had already been working to promote marriage understandably welcomed this novel role for the federal government. But both liberals and conservatives expressed reservations. Among conservatives, the debate was over whether federal efforts should be focused on reducing illegitimacy or mandating work for welfare recipients. Those endorsing the latter view argued that there was little evidence to support the claim that efforts to reduce out-of-wedlock births could work.41 Liberal concern was similar. The National Organization for Women, for example, has objected that marriage-promotion efforts divert welfare funds from basic economic supports for mother-headed families, intrude on private decisions, place some women at greater risk of domestic violence by coercing them to stay in bad or dangerous marriages, waste public funds on ineffective policies, limit state flexibility by earmarking welfare funds for specified programs, and generally lack public support.42 These and similar concerns continue to be expressed. But leading policy analysts Will Marshall and Isabel Sawhill see a political consensus emerging over the complex challenges facing American families—-single, teen, and unwed parenting; economic insecurity; health care; and balancing home and work. They call for a comprehensive family policy to address all such issues.43
Much of the contemporary federal concern about marriage and unmarried fertility is based on arguments similar to those first advanced in 1965 by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor for President Johnson.44 Moynihan claimed that female headed households were a primary cause of poverty and welfare dependency among black Americans. In 1984, in Losing Ground: American Social Policy: 1950–1980, welfare critic Charles Murray elaborated on that theme, arguing that welfare encouraged dependency by making it economically rational for a poor mother to remain single and unemployed rather than marry. The problem of welfare dependency became a central issue in the welfare reform debate that led to a major overhaul of federal legislation in 1996.
As political scientist R. Kent Weaver writes: Murray's “conservative diagnoses and prescriptions for welfare reform were part of a broader conservative renaissance that began in the 1970s and gained momentum with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. . . . Conservatives were far from united on their prescriptions for what to do about AFDC [Aid to Families with Dependent Children] . . . but did succeed in making the reduction of welfare dependency the focus of welfare debates in the 1990s.”45
Tackling welfare dependency would require dealing with issues of out-of-wedlock births, moving welfare recipients into the labor force, and making fathers contribute-—financially, at least-—to raising their children. These issues, raised by Congress in initial deliberations about welfare reform during the 1980s and 1990s, continue to be debated today. Many states have undertaken marriage strengthening efforts supported largely with federal welfare funds. Although such efforts may reflect a more general federal interest in marriage, the most significant initiatives target poor women and, to some extent, men.
The welfare reform bill signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 featured four family-formation objectives. The first was to provide assistance to needy families to allow children to be cared for in their own homes or those of relatives. The second was to end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage. The third was to prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals toward that end. The final goal was to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.46 Congress gave states wide latitude to implement innovative strategies, such as limiting additional welfare support to households in which an additional child is born or limiting cash benefits to teenage mothers. Congress also provided funding for abstinence education.
Promoting two-parent families and discouraging out-of-wedlock births are now acknowledged federal objectives. A state's performance in meeting these statutory goals has consequences in terms of the welfare funds that flow to it from Washington. States may use block grant funds in “any manner reasonably calculated” to achieve any of the program's goals, and they have used these funds to create new fatherhood and marriage promotion programs or enlarge existing ones.