WASHINGTON, D.C., SEPT. 21, 2002 (Zenit.org).- One consequence of the 1996 U.S. welfare reform was to channel funds into marriage education. Apart from the personal costs of divorce, broken marriages were leading to ever-higher welfare payments. The 1996 reforms are due for renewal, but some observers think Congress will not have time to address the matter before November’s elections, so the status quo may stand for another year.
In the meantime, many states have organized courses to strengthen marriages. In Arizona, 517 couples have taken marriage education courses, the Washington Times reported Sept. 16.
A couple of years ago Arizona legislators decided to spend $1.1 million in welfare funds to subsidize marriage-skills seminars and publish a booklet on marriage and family-related issues. “The breaking down of a marriage, or even existing in a marriage racked by conflict and violence, is the essential source of a host of social problems. It’s time to move in the direction of prevention,” said state Representative Mark Anderson, a leading sponsor of the legislation.
The state pays 85% of class costs for couples (and 100% for parents with low incomes). Most of the couples interviewed by the Washington Times reacted positively to the classes.
At least a dozen states have passed legislation or are considering bills to encourage marriage education, the Christian Science Monitor reported July 18. One of the most ambitious programs is in Oklahoma.
Oklahoma is known for its strong religious and family values, with nearly 60% of registered voters saying they attend church regularly, compared with the national average of about 40%. Yet, nearly a third of all Oklahomans have been divorced at least once, versus 21% nationally.
Past research into the causes of divorce has showed that almost all couples — those who divorce, and those who stay together — have about the same number of fights about the same issues: kids, money, sex, time and other people. The big difference lies in how couples handle disagreements.
So the Marriage Initiative in Oklahoma set out to teach marriage skills. About $1 million has been spent so far in an attempt to reduce the divorce rate by a third by 2010. Along with the courses, churches have agreed to institute a waiting period before they will let couples marry, and to offer more premarital counseling.
It’s too soon to say if the 3-year-old Oklahoma program is working. But the Christian Science Monitor noted that in Chattanooga, Tennessee, local officials credit a grass-roots program with reducing the number of divorce filings by as much as 20% in the past four years. Another effort started by clergy in Modesto, California, has contributed to a 50% falloff in divorce over the past 15 years.
With single-parent families accounting for 58% of all welfare cases, and children of single parents five times as likely to be in poverty, even a modest improvement in helping couples to stay together will have big benefits.
The costs of cohabiting
Aside from marriage classes, other factors also play a role in reducing divorce. A report released last July showed that couples that live together before marriage may well be jeopardizing their future.
The Associated Press reported July 25 that the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, carried out a survey of nearly 11,000 women. They found that by age 30, three in four women have been married and half have lived with a partner outside marriage.
Catherine Cohan, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University, explained: “Many people enter a cohabiting relationship where the deal is, ‘If this doesn’t work out we can split up and it’s no big loss because we don’t have a legal commitment.'” But, she noted, the drawback is that “the commitment is tenuous, and that tenuous commitment might carry over into marriage.”
The survey found that 70% of those who lived together for at least five years did eventually walk down the aisle. But these marriages are also more likely to break up. After 10 years, 40% of the couples that had lived together before marriage had broken up. That compares with 31% of those who did not live together first.
And on the other side of the coin, the factors that play a positive role in helping couples stay together include having fathers with strong community and religious ties, the Boston Globe reported Aug. 12.
W. Bradford Wilcox, author of the study published by the Journal of Marriage and Family, observed that men are more likely to be home in time for dinner and spend time with their kids if they are involved in the local community, belong to a church, are well educated and live within a nuclear family.
Fathers with religious ties, particularly to more conservative faiths, are often branded by academics as authoritarian, harsh and remote, said William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Yet, the research in fact showed that fathers who identify themselves as evangelical Christian or Catholic seemed particularly attentive to their children, Doherty said in his comment on the Wilcox study.
The importance of the father in families was also highlighted by a study published this week in the United Kingdom, “Experiments in Living.”
Written by Rebecca O’Neill and distributed by Civitas, an independent think tank, the paper shows that lone mothers are poorer, more depressed and unhealthier than mothers in two-parent families. And non-residential fathers have higher death rates, drink more heavily, have more “unsafe” sex, and risk losing contact with their children, according to Civitas’ Sept. 16 press release on the study.
David Green, director of Civitas, called on the British government to give more support to the family.
“It becomes irrational,” Green said, “for the government to pretend, as Tony Blair’s government insists on doing, that family structure is no business of policy-makers, and that all family structures are equally to be applauded and supported. We need to see a change in government policy which favors and encourages the most responsible behavior amongst parents, rather than the opposite, as is currently the case.”
Debate under way
Divorce is under debate in a number of countries. In Switzerland, legislators in the National Council voted overwhelmingly this week to relax divorce laws, the newspaper Le Temps reported Sept. 17. By a 131-to-18 tally the lawmakers reduced from four to two years the time couples must be separated before they can begin divorce proceedings.
And in Chile, Parliament is once again debating whether to legalize divorce. In May a Senate committee gave preliminary approval to introducing divorce legislation, the newspaper El Mercurio noted Sept. 12.
Legislators must now decide among a number of options. One proposal would let couples choose between marrying with — or without — the possibility of divorce. As Chilean lawmakers mull over divorce, they’d be wise to recall the toll it has taken elsewhere.