New York Times

November 13, 2002

It Takes a Wedding

By ALEX KOTLOWITZ
New York Times

CHICAGO — With the Republican victory last week, Congress now appears likely to set aside funding for programs that promote marriage among the poor. A friend who provides services for inner-city children declared this marriage push "nuts." That had been my initial reaction, as well. But now I wonder if the conservatives who are driving this effort might be on to something.

There's a shift in the winds in our inner cities. On the heels of a fatherhood movement (which, incidentally, also had conservative roots), more and more young couples are considering marriage. A long-term study of 5,000 low-income couples has found that eight of 10 who have a child together have plans to marry. "I was out in the field all of the time, interviewing low-income single mothers," Kathy Edin, a sociologist at Northwestern University, told me. "And what really struck me in those interviews was how many people talked about the desire to get married. And I would go back, you know, and talk to my friends in academia and they would say, 'Oh, they can't mean that.' But I would hear it again and again."

Might marriage be making a comeback in communities where the vast majority of children are born to single parents? A minister on Chicago's West Side told me that when he began preaching there 10 years ago, his congregation scoffed at his efforts to foster matrimony. But this year his church co-sponsored an event called "Celebrating Contentment," in which long-married couples testified to their happiness together. Last summer, there was such demand for the minister's weekly marriage enrichment workshops that he had to put some parishioners on a waiting list. In Baltimore, Joe Jones, who runs a program to promote fatherhood, is adding marriage classes to his curriculum. And the Nation of Islam, which organized the Million Man March, has now taken up the mantle of marriage, declaring it "a social institution in need of restoration."

Marriage can be treacherous terrain. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a young official in the Department of Labor, issued a report titled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." It suggested that the breakdown of the black family one-third of all black children at the time lived with only one parent was keeping African-Americans from finding their way into the middle class. Mr. Moynihan was pilloried by progressives; he was accused of blaming the victim. Liberals essentially abdicated the discussion about family to the conservatives, and have had a tough time finding their way back since.

But there is now growing consensus among social scientists that, all things being equal, two parents are best for children. It would seem to follow that two-parent families are also best for a community. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes families to build a village.

While liberals haven't done enough to emphasize the importance of marriage in reinforcing the bonds that hold society together, conservatives have put too much faith in the power of marriage alone to lift people out of poverty.

In 1988, Vince Lane, then the director of the Chicago Housing Authority, was conducting top-to-bottom searches of public housing high-rises, looking for guns and drugs. But the discovery that most dismayed him was the large number of men living with their girlfriends illegally. They weren't on the lease. In the raids, Mr. Lane found them hiding in closets and in bathtubs and in laundry baskets. At one high-rise, Mr. Lane got fed up. He told the men they could stay if they got married. So the city hosted an all-expenses-paid (honeymoon included) eight-couple shotgun wedding.

What's happened to the couples since? Most have split up, which should come as no surprise. The stress of not having money, of living in decrepit housing, of sending children to poorly funded schools would take its toll on even the most committed relationship. So how then might we help get couples to the altar? By pushing marriage? Or by helping ease the strains in people's lives?

It would be wrongheaded to encourage marriage by stigmatizing single parenthood, a process that has already begun with the reintroduction of the word "illegitimacy" into the lexicon. After all, that's the very constituency the government is trying to reach.

Wade Horn, the Bush administration official who oversees the welfare program, has assured critics that the administration, by supporting demonstration projects that promote marriage, doesn't intend to coerce people to the altar. And, indeed, what tools government has available like the relationship training seminars Oklahoma has begun to offer seem benign enough, if unproven.

When it comes to social engineering, government has turned out to be a clumsy catalyst. Mr. Moynihan, whose report was in many ways prescient the numbers he cited for black families in 1965 now apply to all families, regardless of race has said, "If you expect government to change families, you know more about government than I do."

Even if conservatives don't know how to get there, at least they recognize that marriage, this very private institution, has very public consequences. Liberals, who have a much firmer understanding of the obstacles poor people face, need to enter that conversation.

Alex Kotlowitz, author of "There Are No Children Here," is correspondent for the forthcoming "Frontline" program, "Let's Get Married."

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company