Marriage as Public Policy

Article excerpt

Marriage as a public issue has been growing in visibility in the U.S., but it has never moved to the center of public discourse. Policy wonks occasionally refer to the "m" word; this is their way of acknowledging that marriage should not be brought up in polite (or politically correct) discussions of public policy.

Bill Clinton got close to mentioning the "m" word in the 1996 presidential campaign, when he called for a decrease in teenage pregnancies, an increase in responsible fatherhood, and attention to the virtues of a two-parent family. But he never came out and said that marriage is generally the best context for parenting or that marriage contributes to the common good. Despite the growth of private groups that examine marriage as an issue of concern for public health and the common good--groups like the Council on Families in America, the Washington, D.C.-based Family Impact Seminar, and David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's National Marriage Initiative--there has been little response by government, national or state, to their efforts.

Tony Blair and the New Labor Movement in England have broken the silence about marriage as a public policy issue. It is the only government in a leading industrial nation to address directly marriage as a public issue. In November the Labor government issued a Green paper titled "Supporting Families: A Consultation Document." It was not just about supporting families and children; it was about supporting marriage.

      Children need stability. Many lone parents and unmarried couples raise
   their children every bit as successfully as married parents. But marriage
   is still the surest foundation for raising children and remains the choice
   of the majority of people in Britain. We want to strengthen the institution
   of marriage to help more marriages to succeed.

Why is the Labor government promoting marriage? The answer is simple. England's statistics on divorce, out-of-wedlock births, cohabitation and nonmarriage are among the highest of any industrial country. Politicians are reading social science research that shows family disruption correlates with poverty for single mothers and children, poor health, poor employment records, and cycles of marital disruption for succeeding generations. Furthermore, politicians understand that these negative consequences are not simply private tragedies; they constitute huge public costs in social programs, health care, school disruption and work productivity.

The Labor government's Green paper contains a barrelful of public policy proposals. These proposals are aimed at making people better parents, but they view parenting as strengthened by marriage. The proposals include establishing a National Family and Parenting Institute for disseminating the best possible information on marriage and parenting, a national helpline sharing advice and information on helpful resources, universal child benefits, tax credits for poor working families with children, and awards for family-friendly employees.

The centerpiece of the Green paper, however, and by far its most controversial feature, is its proposals to support marriage itself. The Labor government proposes to turn all "marriage registrars" (civil servants who register marriages) into "secular vicars." These registrars would be given the additional responsibility of providing information on the rights and responsibilities of marriage. They would also be asked to perform more elaborate marriage ceremonies (the majority of British couples choose to tie the knot before civil authorities rather than the church).

The Green paper also calls for additional funding for voluntary organizations that offer premarital education (although such education would not be a requirement for gaining a marriage license). …