We've seen that slaveowners promoted slave marriage when convenient for whites, and post-bellum freed slaves were encouraged to marry so as to not burden white taxpayers.
Current government marriage programs tied to welfare benefits, along with politicians who use family-values rhetoric, are no different from this early, hypocritical marriage promotion. These programs and rhetoric have undertones of so-called “civilization” of certain “unruly” populations, and in reality, fail to benefit families of color.
Beginning with 1996's welfare reform, marriage initiatives promoted by conservative politicians at the national level pledged to assist single-parent poor families, ideally lifting them out of poverty.1 The statistics were on their side: non-marital families tend to be worse off economically than families headed by married couples.2 Children in single-parent families fare poorer in several areas than do children raised by married couples.3
In 2003, Congress authorized $750 million, in conjunction with welfare programs, for “healthy marriage promotion” and fatherhood initiatives.4 The Bush administration heavily supported these programs.
One program, for which I personally recruited in 2006 and 2007, offered workshops for married and unmarried low-income couples expecting a child. The workshops provided relationship skills, conflict resolution, and budgeting advice. Each couple was also assigned a case manager.
The couples received incentives for attending the workshops, receiving “bucks” which they could “spend” on diapers, clothing, and other items for their baby. A fatherhood specialist worked with fathers-to-be on specific areas, such as employment, which, hearkening back to the post-bellum era, supports the notion that a gainfully-employed husband and father will keep his family off welfare.
While on its face, this program appeared to benefit couples who struggle financially, I eventually began to question whether millions of federal dollars should be directed toward personal relationship skills. One description of an unmarried couple on public aid stated:
Anthony and Pam don't need love; they have it. They need health care, a supportive environment for treatment, food, and shelter. At some point, the government decided to start teaching people to find love and marriage instead of providing them with things they need.5
Marriage promotion programs have turned out to be ineffective in improving relationships. The results of such well-meaning programs are dismal. The divorce rate did not change and marriage rates did not increase.6 Meanwhile, poverty persists. Efforts by a majority white government to impose a certain moral code are detrimental to society and to individuals. Taxpayer funds are used to support efforts that patronize adults, working under the assumption that marriage is a cure-all for our social ills.
Because of disproportionate incarceration rates, domestic violence, substance abuse, and other effects of living in a system that often impedes upward mobility, marriage simply cannot serve as a cure-all.
As we've also seen with welfare's history, marriage promotion programs are merely a more explicit form of imposing a white normative view of the "traditional" family: a married heterosexual couple with biological children, without any regard to economic and racial factors. One marriage program went so far as to refuse benefits if the wife's children were not biologically the husband's.7
On the surface, policymakers of all stripes should be in favor of supporting healthy relationships, but such support does not necessarily have to exclude families who do not fit the norm. A couple can be involved in a healthy relationship even without marriage or when some children are not biologically both spouse’s. Government programs that funnel large sums of money toward marriage-only solutions erase alternative, equally viable forms of family, depleting resources that could be used elsewhere.
I see a contradiction with family-values rhetoric. Many Republicans and Christians claim the church, rather than government, should be the one to help the poor. These folks argue that government should stay out of providing social services, and don't want to see their tax dollars used for such purposes. But when it comes to "values," many conservatives do not have a problem with government promoting a certain family model using millions of dollars in federal funds.
Which one is it? If you want government to stay out of the church's role in caring for the poor, wouldn't you also want government to step aside so the church can foster healthy relationships, including marriage and fatherhood?
1 Julia M. Fisher, Marriage Promotion Policies and the Working Poor: A Match Made in Heaven?, 25 B.C. Third World L.J. 475, 477 (2005).
2 Vivian Hamilton, Will Marriage Promotion Work? 11 J. Gender Race & Just. 1, 1 (Fall 2007).
4 Id. at 2.
5 Aly Parker, Can’t Buy Me Love: Funding Marriage Promotion Versus Listening to Real Needs in Breaking the Cycle of Poverty, 18 S. Cal. Rev. L. & Soc. Just. 493, 494 (Spring 2009).
6 Id. at 495.
7 Id. at 497.