After four decades of rising government spending to treat the effects of broken families, a cultural shift in attitudes toward marriage is evident across America. Elected officials, social scientists, community leaders, and policymakers across the ideological spectrum are admitting that strong marriages--not government intervention--are key to improving social and personal well-being. Increasingly, research is showing that children in married families are healthier, perform better in school, live in poverty less frequently, and are involved in crime or other destructive behaviors less often. But as marriages fail, social problems and social spending to deal with those problems increase.
However, lawmakers and private groups around the country are working to make marriages better, more stable, and more frequent, and are working effectively to reduce the incidence of divorce. For example Oklahoma has set aside $10 million of its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds for its marriage initiative and Arizona has passed legislation setting aside $1 million annually for the same. Florida and Utah have passed legislation to include marriage education in the high school curriculum. Louisiana introduced "covenant marriage" laws increasing the time couples voluntarily remain separated before divorcing, and Arizona followed suit. Covenant marriage legislation has been passed by one house in Georgia, and Oklahoma, Oregon, and Texas. Governors Mike Huckabee (R) of Arkansas and Michael Leavitt (R) of Utah are promoting creative policies that encourage and reinforce marriage; and Utah is sponsoring annual marriage summits to focus attention on ways to strengthen marriage.
Marriage Savers, a set of church-based programs, is helping to reduce divorce rates by up to 30 percent at the city level and is virtually eliminating divorce at the church level. A full-service program would include seven key activities: a minimum four-month preparation course before marriage; a pre-marriage assessment of the couple's individual opinions on significant issues; training for mentoring couples in how to use inventory results to facilitate discussion about areas on which the couple disagrees; a program to strengthen existing marriages, such as Marriage Encounter, Marriage Alive, or Family Builders; a program to help troubled marriages; mentoring for stepfamilies; and a ministry for separated couples.
Community Marriage Covenants in cities across America are networks of congregations and civic leaders who rally communities to focus on efforts to increase marriage and decrease divorce. In Modesto, California, the divorce rate has plunged 47.6 percent since 95 pastors signed the covenant in 1986. In Kansas City, Kansas, the number of divorces has dropped by 32.5 percent in just two years after 40 pastors signed the covenant. Across the river, in Kansas City, Missouri, which has no such covenant, the number of divorces increased over the same period.
- The Best Friends program in Washington, D.C., has reduced out-of-wedlock births among its members by as much as 90 percent and has led about the same percentage to pledge to remain sexually abstinent until marriage.
Despite such mounting evidence that focusing attention on the importance of marriage can decrease divorce as well as the wide-ranging and costly effects of family breakdown, state spending to try to reduce divorce has been limited. In the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, Congress made clear that it wanted states to use TANF funds to strengthen marriages. Specifically, Congress stated that the money should be used to "end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage"; "prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies"; and "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." However, only Oklahoma has done so thus far.
Objections to government spending on marriage promotion and divorce prevention are based on a misunderstanding of the connection between the breakdown of marriage and the demand for welfare and social services, as well as the government's responsibility for the destruction of marriage among the poor through regulations that penalize marriage.
Washington and the state governments can do more to try to increase the incidence of marriage and reduce the rate of divorce. First, they should set clear, attainable goals. Congress should establish a goal, for example, of reducing divorce and out-of-wedlock births by 33 percent by 2010 and mandate that surplus TANF funds be spent to evaluate and promote the relative strengths of different programs in the state "laboratories of reform." States should not wait for Congress, however, to get behind the programs that are already achieving significant results. They can begin using their surplus TANF funds today to meet their unique needs. With clear goals, clear spending targets, and good evaluation studies, government can play a constructive role in rebuilding a family culture based on marriage.
--Patrick F. Fagan is the William H. G. FitzGerald Senior Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at The Heritage Foundation.