- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

I have not seen a single news story about it, but there is great news about marriage in America. For the first time, the federal government will invest $100 million a year to strengthen marriage over the next five years.

President Bush signed the law Feb. 8 as part of the reauthorization of Welfare Reform. It is not new money, but a reallocated funds poorly spent to reduce out-of-wedlock births, which rose from 1.2 million in 1995 to 1.4 million in 2003.

The key question is: Who will get the money? Most likely state and local welfare offices. Why? They know how to write applications for federal aid. However, they are the least likely to use the money well. In fact, their welfare rules and regulations have contributed mightily to the disintegration of marriage. The marriage rate has plunged 48 percent since 1970.

Those with the greatest capacity to reduce divorce and cohabitation rates — churches and synagogues — are unlikely to apply for this federal aid. As my pastor put it, “We will never take one dollar of federal aid.”

But that misses the point. Healthy Marriage Initiatives started in many cities could receive the money and hire staff to work with congregations to help them better prepare couples for marriage, enrich existing marriages or save troubled ones.

However, local religious leaders needs to demand a voice in the allocation. That will not be easy for two key reasons:

(1) Local churches rarely cooperate. Religious leadership is splintered. Catholic churches, 10 times larger than Protestant ones, typically ignore them. Protestants are divided between conservative Evangelical clergy who know each other, but not Mainline Protestants who have their own liberal Councils of Churches. Minority clergy generally stick to themselves.

(2) The marital pioneering done by some denominations or local churches is unknown to most local clergy. Catholic marriage strategy historically works well enough so only 25 percent of Catholics have divorced compared to 39 percent of Protestants. Catholics require six months of rigorous marriage preparation that includes a premarital inventory and training in conflict resolution. They also created Marriage Encounter that has strengthened 2 million existing marriages and Retrouvaille, which restores 80 percent of the 70,000 deeply troubled marriages (retrouvaille.org).

However, individual Protestant churches have pioneered successful postmarital answers in local churches. St. David’s Episcopal Church in Jacksonville, Fla., created a “Marriage Ministry” in which couples who have recovered from crippling problems, such as adultery, learned to mentor similarly challenged couples. Over five years, mentors saved 38 out of 40 troubled marriages.

Roswell (Ga.) United Methodist Church created a Stepfamily Support Group, giving stepparents a place and a plan to learn how blend families. This saves 80 percent of stepfamilies, of which 70 percent usually divorce — a total reversal.

What can be done for marriages in which one partner wants to leave while the other is trying to save the marriage? At their evangelical church in Modesto, Calif., Joe and Michelle Williams developed a self-guided workbook course called “Reconciling God’s Way.” The spouse working at the marriage takes the course with a friend of the same sex. They meet an hour weekly for three months working over questions suggested by a “Support Partner Handbook.”

For more information about these solutions or about Community Marriage Policies that have jump-started these reforms in 201 cities, call Marriage Savers, an organization my wife and I created. Telephone (301) 469-5873.

The new law will fund initiatives that could foster such marriage-saving solutions. Specifically, it will allow eight different activities to be funded:

(1) Public advertising campaigns on the value of marriage and skills needed to succeed.

(2) Education in high schools on the value of marriage, relationship skills and budgeting.

(3) Marriage education that teaches unwed pregnant women and expectant fathers relationship and parenting skills.

(4) Premarital education and marriage skills for engaged couples and couples or individuals considering marriage.

(5) Marriage enrichment and marital skills training programs for existing marriages.

(6) Divorce reduction programs that teach conflicted couples relationship skills.

(7) Marriage mentoring programs that use married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk communities.

(8) Programs to reduce the disincentives to marriage in means-tested aid programs, such as welfare, food stamps or Medicaid normally cut or eliminated if a single parent marries — if offered with marriage education.

This is a new day for marriage, thanks to the new crafted by Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Wade Horn.

Michael J. McManus is president of Marriage Savers and writes the Web column “Ethics & Religion.”


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