Sharp debates over questions such as the potential impact of marriage promotion in reducing poverty or the effect of single parenthood on child outcomes are sometimes necessary, because our political climate is filled with simplistic claims that ignore complex family interactions, confuse correlations with cause and effect, promise one-step solutions for social ills, and ignore the fact that in the real world divorce or single parenthood may be preferable to a corrosive marriage. But for the record, let me state clearly that I support efforts to create solid foundations for healthy marriages and two-parent families.
Helping people form and sustain healthy marriages and co-parenting alliances is immensely important, and I respect the work that many people in the marriage movement do. Psychologists Philip and Carolyn Cowan have designed superb, scientifically-conducted, programs to foster healthy marriages and other partner relationships, with impressive results. Research institutions such as Mathematica have produced outstanding data on the strengths (and limits) of different ways of conducting such programs. The PREP marriage education program has been shown to be very effective. Norval Glenn is a serious researcher whom I have always respected even when we disagree.
And many participants in the loose alliance of groups lumped together as “the marriage movement,” especially those sometimes labeled “marriage plus,” recognize that marriage preparation, education, and counseling must be combined with concrete support systems for impoverished families, including trying to create living-wage jobs for men and women in impoverished communities.
The possibility for fruitful collaboration is clear. A recent ethnographic study by Paula England and Kathryn Edin points out that traditional liberal and conservative approaches are each half right and half wrong in their analysis of why relationships between impoverished unwed parents are unstable. Lack of resources, not values, is the main barrier to marriage for these folks, but lack of relationship commitment and skills is what breaks them up. England and Edin conclude that both economic reforms and relationship counseling are needed to increase the stability of relationships in distressed and impoverished communities.
So I am sorry if my remarks distressed any of the sincere and capable people attempting to promote healthy marriages. But let’s be clear. Large sections of the religious right most certainly do flaunt the “family values” mantle. They push marriage as the solution to all our social ills and refuse to accept that any family form except their own ideal can work effectively. They are wrong. Their ideas are dangerous and counterproductive. The point of my last blog post was to caution libertarians against unprincipled alliances with such groups just because they oppose taxation for welfare, job creation, or public projects.
I hope this clarifies my rejoinder. Now I will get out of the way and let other people discuss these issues.