Big New Weapon in the War on Poverty

Will $1.5 billion to promote marriage education help in the war on poverty? The House has passed a welfare reauthorization bill that included President Bush’s request to spend $1.5 billion over five years to promote marriage education among the poor.

Currently the bill is stalled in the Senate. The President promises that marriage education will reduce poverty. Feminists argue that the program will force women into marriages, increasing domestic violence. People of all political stripes wonder if the government has any business in people’s romantic lives.

The goal of marriage education is to teach people how to have successful marriages. If the President wanted to force people to get married there would be simpler options, such as giving cash to married people. Providing marriage education is not going to coerce people who are happily single into marriage.

Marriage education programs work because they teach people the skills that are necessary for marriages to succeed. The single best predictor of marital satisfaction is how conflict is handled. All couples have disagreements, and all couples disagree about the same things: chores, sex, in-laws and money, to name a few. Research suggests that the typical happily married couple has 10 conflictual issues that they cannot resolve. Happy couples handle these disagreements differently than unhappy couples. Research shows that we can teach people to handle conflict better and thereby improve marital satisfaction.

Does more marriage necessarily mean more domestic violence against women? No. Women are much more likely to be abused by the men they are living with when they are not married. A good marriage education program will help women avoid violent men. Marriage education includes information about choosing a mate. For example, marriage educator John Van Epp has a program called “How to Avoid Marrying a Jerk.”

Furthermore, marriage education programs have been shown to reduce violence in relationships. Most people, even those prone to violence, do not begin shoving or throwing things the moment a disagreement breaks out. By teaching couples how to handle conflict in a more controlled and positive way, negative escalation and the violence that may follow are short circuited. Marriage education will reduce domestic violence.

Is it the government’s job to promote marital bliss’ No. However our government has chosen to be involved in fighting poverty. Clearly our “War on Poverty” waged largely by providing the poor with financial assistance has not eliminated poverty. One option would be to declare the policy a failure and end such programs. This is untenable in our current political climate. Another option is to attempt to change behaviors that are related to poverty.

Promoting successful marriage is likely to change behaviors that are related to poverty. Because of our cultural expectations for husbands, in contrast to boyfriends, married men tend to work more hours and earn more money. Because of the long-term commitment of marriage, married people tend to save more. On average children of married parents do better in school. Thus, the cycle of poverty is broken by the academic success of the children.

Is marriage education the atom bomb that will win the war on poverty? No, but it may be the equivalent of several daisy cutters. Changing people’s behavior is the best way to lift people out of poverty and provide the dignity that is absent when handouts are the primary weapon. Given that the government is going to address poverty, promoting marriage is a refreshing and promising new approach. If people can have fulfilling marriages as a consequence, that is the icing on the cake.

About Joseph J. Horton

Dr. Joseph J. Horton is professor of psychology at Grove City College and the Working Group Coordinator for Marriage and Family with the Institute for Faith and Freedom. He is also a researcher on Positive Youth Development.

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