Wade F. Horn on the Bush Administration’s Proposed Marriage Education Initiatives

from Poverty Research Insights, Winter 2004

Excerpts from a speech given at the conference, “Marriage and Family Formation Among Low-Income Couples: What do We Know From Research?” by Wade F. Horn, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An influential voice in the marriage and fatherhood debates, Dr. Horn played an important role in shaping the Bush Administration’s marriage education initiatives.

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“When it comes to marriage promotion, the support for healthy marriages, I think we as a country have moved beyond the question about whether or not the government should be involved in this issue and have moved to the question of how. That is a very important move. There is a great distance from the question of ‘whether,’ to the question of ‘how.’

The reason we made that move is because of work that many of you have done who are in this room: the accumulation of an empirical literature that clearly indicates that marriage does hold very clear benefits for children, for adults and for communities. … Given this shift, I would like to focus my comments today on what I think government ought to do and how it ought to do it….

Before I do that, I have learned to start this talk by emphasizing what the government ought not to do when promoting marriage. It ought not to be about forcing anybody to get married. I am a conservative and as a conservative I think the government ought to be limited in what it does even in the name of doing good. The government ought not be involved with the intimate decision of a couple deciding whether or not to get married.

…. So, What should government do? Here are some basic principles I think ought to drive government in this arena. First government ought to make it clear that it is in the business of promoting not just marriage, but healthy marriage.... Government’s role is not simply to move marriage rates; we can do that by making it impossible to get out of marriages, but we would trap a lot of people in bad marriages. …(T)he reason that government should be involved is because government has an interest in promoting the well-being of children and we know that healthy marriages are good for kids and that unhealthy marriages are not.

The second principle that ... should drive government involvement in this area is that government should not merely seek to be neutral about ... marriage. Government is neutral about many things, and it should be. Your choice of ties, your favorite ice cream flavor — there are lots of things that government should be neutral about when it comes to individual decision-making. But there are things that government is not neutral about. Government is not neutral about homeownership. Why not? Well, because we know that communities where there are higher rates of homeownership are more stable, have less social pathologies and have greater community strengths measured in a variety of ways. So government doesn’t seek to be neutral about homeownership; it provides mild incentives, primarily through the tax code in the form of a home interest mortgage deduction.

…. In much the same way, government, while not forcing anyone to get married, can and should provide support for healthy marriages, precisely because it can be shown that healthy marriages contribute to the common good. As such, simply removing disincentives to marriage is not enough. Government should not simply strive to be neutral about the issue. But it in fact should provide incentives and supports for couples that choose marriage for themselves to form and sustain healthy marriages.

The third principle is we ought not to wait until all the data are in - until we have perfect knowledge - before we do anything in this arena. If we said that about early childhood development, then we would not have launched Head Start in 1965…. (I)t’s precisely because we don’t know how to do this perfectly that the government should do this with an eye towards evaluation and further research..., but not to be paralyzed into inaction….

…. Now I want to be clear about three things:

First, I want to be clear about the issue of domestic violence. Sometimes I hear conservatives cite research indicating that cohabiting couples have higher rates of domestic violence than married couples, and that’s true. But often I hear them cite that research and put a period at the end and go onto the next topic, leaving the implication at least in some peoples’ minds that the solution to domestic violence in cohabiting couples is to get them married. Let me be very clear: that is not the solution; that simply is an opportunity for the couple to engage in further violence against each other. One of the reasons I am so attracted to premarital education services is precisely because research shows that at least 15% of couples who go through serious premarital education are diverted away from marriage because during the context of the premarital education services it’s discovered that they are either completely unprepared for marriage or because they uncover violence occurring in the dating relationship….

The second thing I want to be very clear about is that promoting healthy marriage is not the Administration’s strategy to reduce poverty. Work is the Administration’s strategy of reducing poverty. It is self evident if you have two individuals, neither of whom are working and you merely get them married, you then have two married individuals, neither of whom is working and they are likely to be poor. But there is good reason to believe that if you integrate support and encouragement for healthy marriages into a broader context of work supports you are likely to gain greater poverty reduction than if you simply have a work focus alone….

…. Finally I want to...make it clear that being in favor of supports and encouragements for healthy marriage does not mean we should neglect children who find themselves in families where the parents are not married…. It is impossible for me to support a system that would say “(we don’t)...provide supports because that child is living in a household in which their parents are not married.” If you believe, as I do, that... the focus ought to be on the well being of children, it requires that you continue to provide broad-based supports for children in all kinds of family structures and arrangements and that you don’t do healthy marriage promotion at the expense of those services….

I work for a President who does believe, as I do, that government ought to be limited. But he also says that what the government does, it ought to do well. One of the things he says government ought to do well is strengthen families. Nowhere was this seen more clearly than in the Presidential Proclamation he made at the first National Family Week of his Administration, ... ‘My Administration is committed to strengthening the American family. Many one-parent families are also a source of comfort and reassurance. Yet a family with a Mom and Dad who are committed to marriage and devote themselves to their children helps provide children a sound foundation for success. Government can support families by promoting policies that help strengthen the institution of marriage and help parents rear their children in positive and healthy environments.’

…. (T)he reality is, based on the research ... healthy marriages are the environment that confers the most advantages to the most children. Given the government’s interest in promoting the well being of children, government in our view does have a role to play in helping couples who choose marriage for themselves develop those skills and knowledge that we know can be healthy in forming and sustaining healthy marriages….”


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