The hidden agenda of "marriage promotion?"

weddingcakedisasterIndie journalist Amy DePaul has published a story about those bad-old George W. Bush-era programs that push marriage as a magic solution to poverty and family discord.  In “Bush Era Moral Crusaders Still Pushing Marriage on the Rest of Us,” she reports that now they’re Obama-era programs, too!

The recently released Obama budget would preserve the five-year marriage initiative, although Congress still could eliminate it in appropriations. The initiative awards grants to demystify wedlock to teens, low-income populations, the public at large, married couples, singles looking to marry, engaged couples and couples who recently had or are expecting a baby. One program even targets incarcerated parents.

The programs do not provide individualized couples therapy but rather are seminar-type events conducted in classroom settings, using curricula that emphasize relationship staples such as communication, compromise and romance.

Who is winning these grants, and what are they doing with the money? 

They are often faith-based organizations, community groups and educational institutions that have won federal grants of anywhere from $200,000 to $2 million to combine instruction in relationship skills with the celebration of legally sanctioned, long-term commitment. 

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As part of its public-education campaign, the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center has created the Web site, which offers tips on dealing with money, conflict and romance in long-term relationships. The tasteful page design and content of the site seem deliberately feminine — a recent lead article was on the impact of mothers and the challenges of being a supermom (though the discussion boards are, weirdly, dominated by men voicing disdain for marriage and women).

(That’s not so weird.  Just ask any feminist blogger about all of the d00dly d00ds who are so full of helpful suggestions as to how to present our ideas in much more man-friendly, man-approved ways!  Because of course feminism, like everything else in the world, is all about the menz.)  Yes–your tax dollars are funding yet another website in which d00dly a$$hats get their misogyny on.  (Confidential to the Obama administration:  people with blogs provide this valuable public service for free!  You can get out of the business of subsidizing slander, if you want to.)

Buried in DePaul’s story is this little nugget that got me thinking:

This kind of relationship turnover is a serious problem, according to Andrew Cherlin, author of The Marriage-Go-Round, who said that Americans divorce and remarry at higher rates than in other industrial countries. Repartnering and remarrying are often a source of instability in American children’s lives.

“Marriage is a good thing for kids. But if you already have a child and have broken up, we should not be telling you to hurry up and get married to someone else,” Cherlin said.

He added that countries where marriage is not as highly venerated as in the U.S. still manage to foster stable family lives — and that stability is as important a message as matrimony.

“Here’s an amazing statistic: A child living with married parents in the U.S. has a higher risk of seeing his parents break up than a child living with unmarried parents in Sweden,” Cherlin said. “There’s a danger in making marriage the only emphasis in our family policies.”

Hmmmmm. . . what makes Americans so eager to marry, and remarry, and re-remarry compared to those faithful, cautious Swedes?  Could it be our fracked up health care system, in which insurance is a for-profit business and one can include only spouses and children on policies in most states?  (Some states permit the insuring of “domestic partners,” but not all.)   Now that might be the reason Americans marry early and often by comparison to people in most other European and North American countries!  It’s the only way they can get themselves and their kids any health care.  I don’t really love him, but I’ll marry him because he’s got gold-plated insurance and I have no other way of getting my kids to the doctor and staying on my prescription meds.  Ain’t it romantic! 

How fascinating that many on the right advocate these marriage advocacy programs also adamantly oppose single-payer health care, which would permit individuals regardless of marital status to get access to health care.  (Yes, people who are living on the public t!t preaching marriage and abstinence morph into radical libertarians when it comes to the evil spectre of single payer.)  I’ve long thought that the U.S. government should get out of the business of rewarding heteronormativity and marriage:  why should tax policy take into account one’s marital status?  Why can’t we designate a beneficiary to inherit a survivor’s portion of our Social Security benefits, regardless of our relationship to that person? 

Clearly, offering universal health care to individuals is the only fair way to go.  Can it be that resistance to single-payer systems in the U.S. is intimately connected to fears that patriarchal authority within families will be threatened if people can get health care as individuals rather than as dependent family members?

25 thoughts on “The hidden agenda of "marriage promotion?"

  1. I’m also leery of the government’s decision to subsidize marriage and reproduction through the tax code. Paying less money because you’re married seems to unfairly penalize those who remain unofficially partnered. And giving people deductions for children also seems to promote having them-like otherwise, people would consider the expensive involved and not have so many!

    I guess its the closet Libertarian in me, but I think the government should stay out of all of it. Everyone should be treated as an individually, and rewarded (or not) accordingly.


  2. Oh, neat link on the health care front! I’m particularly leery of promoting marriage to teens. As it is, many over-romanticize marriage (planning dream weddings or thinking that this will make them independent) without thinking about how hard a sustained relationship is, let alone being a leader in their new family unit.


  3. Yes, what the world needs now is more teenagers getting hitched. Perhaps they could get Britney Spears as their spokesmodel.

    I have long been perplexed by the veneration of marriage in the US (coming from one of those dreadful ‘socialist’ countries where unmarried couples get the same legal rights as married ones and healthcare is both universal and individual), but US healthcare policy means it makes perfect sense. It seems that would really push people into marrying even if they don’t particularly want to or don’t believe in it. Recipe for disaster, much??


  4. You know what’s REALLY great about this? I get to pay for seminars promoting something that I, a lesbian, am legally prohibited from from doing. It’s like asking African Americans to fund seminars on the benefits of Jim Crow to local businesses. Or something.

    Your taxes: continuing to fund the promotion of inequality!!


  5. Marty Moss-Coane did a great interview with Cherlin a few weeks ago. Cherlin argued that in the US, marriage “matters as a symbol of leading a first-class personal life” and he linked that to the reason the fight over gay marriage is so fierce in the US as opposed to Western European countries. Cherlin also contends that in the US, marriages are fraught because we value individuality and independence as much as we do marriage. (Here he compared the US to places like Italy where marriage is crucial but individuality takes a back seat to the importance of family.)

    I’d hesitate, though, to say that Americans get married more because of our health care system (which I agree is pretty woeful). I think the insurance and tax benefits are incentives for couples who get married later (30s and 40s). But I’m pretty sure the teenagers and young adults who are being encouraged to marry by their church leaders and other mentors have no conception of the economic benefits of doing so. When I was growing up in a Southern Baptist church and I was getting the message that marriage was the most important thing to aim for, it wasn’t an economic argument. The argument was that marriage was the only context in which I could have sex without shame. And while this was never stated outright, I also got a distinct impression that marriage needed to happen quickly because it was really the only way one’s life (as a woman) had any meaning. I think this is what really distinguishes us from our European counterparts.


  6. Historiann, thanks for posting my story. Re your comment:

    I’ve long thought that the U.S. government should get out of the business of rewarding heteronormativity and marriage: why should tax policy take into account one’s marital status? Why can’t we designate a beneficiary to inherit a survivor’s portion of our Social Security benefits, regardless of our relationship to that person?

    A law professor named Nancy Polikoff argues that the legal system needs to be revamped in matters of death benefits, workers comp, health insurance, that people don’t have to be married to get these benefits.

    Her book is called Beyond Straight and Gay Marriage… seems like you were singing her tune so I thought I’d mention it if you’re interested.

    sorry to put my article as a link — seems like matrimony is my topic lately…


  7. I think you’re right on target. And frogprincess, I don’t think this is conscious for teens at all, and probably not for evangelical preachers, either. The push toward marriage and the resistance to single-payer health care grow from the same root: attachment to patriarchal systems that privilege higher earners and simultaneously make it harder for women and people of color to become higher earners.


  8. And giving people deductions for children also seems to promote having them

    I imagine that eliminating child tax credits would pose more substantive problems to single mothers than to married households. In any case, I spend far more providing for my children than I make up in tax deductions. I also pay taxes on the imputed value of my partner’s health benefits, but at least we get them.


  9. I’m one example that Historiann is right (but isn’t she always?!) My spouse and I married solely so that I could get access to health insurance when we decided to have a child. We owned a house together and wanted a child but had no real desire to get married, oh well.


  10. Thanks for all of your comments–I’m glad to hear I’m not the only completely paranoid feminist out there. As for truffula’s comment about the child tax credit: that’s not the hill I want to die on necessarily, but my instinct is that it should be ditched. My guess is that most parents–single or partnered/married–would be happy to give up the child tax credit in favor of guaranteed national health care for themselves and their children. That would be a benefit truly for all, not just one available for income-earning people (or people who file tax returns.) (And I’d happily give it up in order to help pay for a single-payer system.)

    I like Emma’s comment on paying for marriage promotion to straights when lesbians and gays are actively demonized if they want to partake of boring breeder benefits. If marriage is such a wonderful thing, why do we need to promote it? In a free marketplace of ideas, if marriage can’t sell itself without the elaborate financial props and bludgeons it has at its disposal in our current system, then maybe its not such a great deal.

    As the old joke goes: Marriage is an institution. And who wants to live in a frakkin’ institution?


  11. re: child tax credit system.

    Historiann, while I agree that providing universal health care for people’s children is one major way of ending the necessity of that tax credit, it isn’t the only use the tax credit has. Children are expensive, and not only their health care – food clothing equipment, etc, is very expensive and can put a financial burden on a household. A 5 person household is just a lot more expensive than a 2 person (especially if both those two are full-wage earners). I think families deserve deductions to help offset the additional costs that people without children don’t have. I don’t think there’s anything inherently unfair or heteronormative about this. Especially because tax credits for children cover one additional and very important expense that brings many families to their knees: child care. Full time day care for one baby can run $1000 a month or more in many places. (babies are more expensive than older children because the provider-child ratio is smaller) This expense takes an enormous toll on families and is particularly punitive in two-couple households where the mother works (because day care often takes all of one person’s salary). Now, if there was universal health care AND heavily-gov’t subsidized child care, we might be onto something.


  12. Anon–I’m in support of government-provided child care and free preschool for all. What I don’t like about the child tax credit is that 1) as your description suggests, it’s merely a pisshole in the snow, and 2), it further reinforces the notion that raising children is a private expense, and treats them like a deduction for a small business or some other private endeavor linked explicitly to a parent’s income.

    But, never fear: it’s not like anyone with any influence over tax policy reads this blog or gives a crap about what I say.


  13. I think that, for the most part, raising children is, and should be, a private expense. And I don’t think there should be any specific government provided benefits for raising kids.

    I do think that our social safety net and equality principles should be expanded and interpreted to make sure that neither children nor parents are penalized for being or having children.

    For example, all people should be covered by single-payer healthcare. Government/employers should provide child care to so that parents are not precluded from participating equally in the work force. All children should have access to free and equally good schools through and undergraduate education. FMLA leave should be expanded another couple of months and should be paid leave. Paid sick leave should be mandatory. The social safety net should include and pay for assisted living, better nursing home care, and in-home care, for adults and children who need it.

    I think sticking to those principles would be better than programs/credits specifically targeted at marriage and/or childbearing. I think it’s fairer and has a better philosophical basis. But, of course, it’s always much easier to bleat “but the chilllllldren” about 50,000,000 times. And it’s multi-purpose: demonize gays AND promote women staying at home barefoot and pregnant! That’s the real price of the child tax credit, social inequality.


  14. Emma–I agree for the most part with your policy prescriptions, but I disagree that “raising children. . . should be a private expense.” The problem is that the way things work now, people think about the possibility of free day care or free preschool or a free public education as a service for the parents, instead of for the children themselves. Whereas I think all of society benefits if all children have the option of quality public day care, preschool, K-12, etc. How many little sociopaths in the making might be saved if they went someplace for at least part of each day that was clean, calm, reliable, and enriching? Not all parents–sadly–can provide that kind of a home environment for their children.

    We need to see children as citizens on their own, not just as dependents or appendages to their parents.


  15. Historiann,

    I totally agree with you, especially on the point that children should not be a private enterprise. So the problem isn’t really the tax per se, but how that tax reflects our institutional and social understand and treatment of children (and by extension parents). . . have you read bitch phd’s commentary on “why having a child isn’t a lifestyle choice”? You might enjoy it if you haven’t – it addresses several of the points you’re making here. Basically it’s a refutation of the libertarian argument that children are a private enterprise, when in fact children are integral to society & its proper functioning.

    I’m on board with a complete restructuring. (My husband is Canadian and we’re trying like hell to move there!)


  16. Unlike Liz2, I didn’t get married for health care…I got married so my partner could get a visa. Crazy immigration policy is another way that the government incentivizes marriage. And I know at least three other couples in my grad-school department who’ve done this. Now that we’re married, I hope it sticks, but to be perfectly honest we would rather have kept on living in sin.


  17. I, like liz2, am another person who married because of health insurance. I suspect SweetCliffie and I would have gotten married at some point anyway, but we did it at the precise time we did because he had cancer and I had insurance.


  18. Historiann,

    I think you and I are in agreement re: public education for kids. I still think that raising kids is a private enterprise. But I think there are public goods and public services that should be provided by the government. That’s how I think of public education etc.: Not help with raising children, but a public good the government provides its citizens.

    So, no tax breaks to parents, but public goods and services to all.


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