This kind of proposal is hard to quibble with without coming off as just plain cranky. Who would want to come out against healthy marriages, or, for that matter, better "interpersonal skills"? Representatives from the left and right were reduced to mouthing the usual dreary rhetoric about their pet causes. A lawyer from NOW's Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the Times that programs like this one "may ignore the risk of domestic violence and may coerce women to marry." (Actually, women are more likely to be physically abused by a cohabiting boyfriend than by a husband.) Social-conservatives, though more favorably inclined, suggest that the president strengthen marriage by supporting a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. (He says he'll wait to see what the courts do.)
There's little doubt that marriage is in trouble, and could use a boost from the White House, just as NASA might be revived by planning a mission to Mars. But trying to address the marriage crisis by massively funding premarital education makes me think that the president is looking at the issue through the wrong end of a telescope.
What is society's stake in making marriages healthy? Or stated differently, what harm is caused by the lack of healthy marriages? The answer is the well-being of our children. Forgive me for sounding like Whitney Houston, but it's obvious that children are our future: our future leaders, producers and defenders will come from the youngest part of society. And as a parent of a growing child, I can tell you that future will be here before we turn around twice.
Thus, anything that puts our children at risk for what social scientists call "adverse outcomes" adversely affects the entire society. While there are dissenters out there, the large majority of social-science data points to the same conclusion: children who are not raised in intact two-parent households are, in the aggregate, more at risk for these "adverse outcomes." These include poverty, delinquency, drug abuse, suicide, dropping out of school, and psychiatric illness, to name but a few.
This doesn't mean that a particular child raised by a single-parent will have any of these problems--only that a society where children are increasingly raised in single-parent homes can expect, as a whole, more of these "adverse outcomes." (Hence, the "in the aggregate.")
As the president will likely point out in tonight's State of the Union address, our children are more at risk today than ever before. But it's not because American parents aren't getting married (although this is true in certain communities), but because they aren't staying married. Divorce is the principle reason why half of all American children can expect to spend at least part of the time prior to their 18th birthday living with only one parent.
The best-perhaps the only--way President Bush can make a meaningful difference is to make it harder for parents to get a divorce. Period. I know this sounds barbaric. Some will answer that you can't force people to stay married anymore than you force to get married in the first place. Most "no-fault" divorces--as many as 80 percent--arise from unilateral decisions. As Maggie Gallagher, who wrote "The End of Marriage," puts it, "divorce . . . is not usually the act of a couple, but of an individual." Once the individual has made the decision to leave, the law gives them the upper hand. The other spouse, who is usually open to reconciliation, can only hope to cut the possible best deal on the marital property and custody of the kids.
That's why William Galston, a domestic policy advisor to President Clinton, wrote in The New York Times that "for couples with dependent children, we should eliminate unilateral no-fault--where one person can readily obtain a divorce without the other's consent--and return to an updated fault-based system, with the alternative of a five-year waiting period. And even in cases where both parties consent, there should be suitable braking mechanisms: a mandatory pause of at least a year for reflection, counseling and mediation."
The White House proposal does nothing to change the status quo and, consequently, does nothing to address society's interest in the well-being of its children. To be fair, divorce is a matter of state, not federal, law. That doesn't mean that there's nothing the president, and his administration, can do. At the very least, he could use his office to begin a national conversation about the impact of "no fault" divorce laws on children.
Don't hold your breath. If same-sex marriage, which directly affects a tiny portion of our population, is too hot a political potato to handle, imagine the political risk in talking about opposite-sex divorce. Just as with that most divisive of social issues, abortions, Americans become accustomed, and even dependent, on the easy availability of "no fault" divorce. Asking them to contemplate giving back some of that freedom, even for their children's sake, is risky political business.
Rather than put his re-election at risk, the president is happy to have everyone look through the wrong end of the telescope and believe that the problem lies in lower-income people not getting married or being unprepared when they do. After all, who doesn't want to believe that the problem lies in what we see through that telescope and not ourselves?