- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

It will take a “culture change” to revive traditional marriage in America, but the nation seems poised to pursue it, a professor told a federal welfare conference last week.

“A shift in America’s marriage culture is under way — the decline in marriage has stopped, and we are rebounding,” William J. Doherty, author and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, said at the conference sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

The Bush administration has proposed spending more than $300 million a year in welfare funds to promote healthy relationships and marriages, but money is not all that’s needed to reach America’s population, Mr. Doherty said.

“We are never going to train or teach 300 million people” about the importance of marriage without the support of the major cultural institutions, he said. What is needed, he added, are pro-marriage “norms and messages” from every direction — faith-based groups, public policies, schools, the news media, businesses and professionals.

Other speakers at the three-day welfare conference explained that full-time work and marriage are legitimate goals of welfare reform since very few people who work full time and are married live in poverty.

The problem is how to introduce successful pro-marriage services in neighborhoods that have been dominated for decades by unwed childbearing, unemployment and conflict.

One way is to hold classes for young parents aimed at reconnecting them to the “strengths” in their extended families, culture and social environment, said George Doub, a California marriage therapist and author who has worked with many teen parents.

“Give them something practical, or they won’t come back,” he said, and “build on what works, instead of looking at what’s wrong.”

Another approach is to add after-birth and relationship classes to parenting programs, said Pamela Jordan, a nursing professor at the University of Washington.

Most young parents know something about how to feed and diaper a baby, but not much on how to cope with the dramatic changes a baby brings to their lives, Ms. Jordan said.

Her program — the Becoming Parents Program — addresses this need by teaching young parents communication and conflict-resolution skills so they can take care of each other and resolve the inevitable stresses of parenting.

Princeton University sociology professor Sara S. McLanahan estimated that a third of the 3,600 young unwed parents in the national “fragile families” study are ready to advance to marriage and would “immediately benefit” from pro-marriage programs.

Another third of the couples also seem to be good candidates for marriage programs, but need additional services in education, job training or mental health.

The final third of the couples aren’t good marriage candidates, she said, since they have either ended their romantic involvements or are caught up in destructive lifestyles. Still, all the couples would benefit if “a change in norms were there” about marriage, Ms. McLanahan told the conference.

Other researchers talked about encouraging marriage before parenthood as a social norm and the need for more studies on marriage, especially among low-income couples.

“We’re really back to the drawing board” regarding marriage studies with poor couples, said John M. Gottman, author and executive director of the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle.

HHS has been issuing pro-marriage research grants. However, the main pro-marriage funding program in the welfare bill remains stalled in the Senate.

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