States launch marriage education programs

LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES - Michelle O'Leary said she believes that she would still be raising her children on welfare had she not married Michael nearly three years ago.

And Michael O'Leary said he believes that the two would still be single had they not gone through a six-week premarital program at their church in Kansas City, Kan., that taught them skills such as balancing a budget, disciplining their children and resolving conflicts.


"We had different opinions on everything," said Michael O'Leary, a school custodian.

The O'Learys could be a poster family for President Bush's welfare reform proposal, which seeks to increase the marriage rate and decrease the divorce rate among low-income people. The proposal, a key component of a bill in Congress to reauthorize the 1996 welfare-reform law, would set aside $1 billion in federal money to support community groups that design programs encouraging low-income single mothers to marry.


Although the proposal has been debated and delayed for two years, numerous states - including Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah and Florida - have taken the lead by introducing their own marriage education programs. Illinois is studying whether to launch a similar program.

Bush's marriage initiative has been debated in Congress since 2001. Last year it cleared the House and the Senate Finance Committee.

Under the proposal, the federal government would allocate $1 billion from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families budget - with states paying an additional $500 million - for classes and other programs aimed at increasing the marriage rate among low-income people.

"Research shows when you teach marriage skills to people ... they report high levels of marital satisfaction," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Health and Human Services Department.

Low-income people, however, "don't have the same access to marriage information services - either they can't afford them or they are not available locally," Horn said. "The reason the government is involved is to help low-income couples get access to the services that are available to middle- and higher-income couples."

Opponents argue that the decision to marry is a private matter in which the government should not have involvement.

"I don't think the government should have a role in what is fundamentally a private decision," said Lisalyn Jacobs, vice president for governmental relations at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The government is putting itself in a position of "violating their privacy, coercing people to marry and hitching the women up with a person who is abusive," she said.


Despite facing a similar debate, states have begun experimenting with a number of strategies to reduce the 50 percent divorce rate.

Florida offers reduced marriage license fees for couples who agree to take marriage education courses before their wedding. Louisiana and Arizona offer couples considering a breakup the option of going through intensive counseling to prevent a divorce. Oklahoma has been holding marriage workshops for women on welfare.

"One of the problems with this population is that they have no models for what a good marriage should be," said Kendy Cox, director of training and resources for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.

Researchers have little evidence that the Bush initiative would work. Studies show that couples who attended marriage education courses - the vast majority of whom were middle-class - stayed together in the short term.

There is little research gauging how long the marriages of low-income couples who participated in the programs lasted.

"People who work in premarital education are focused primarily on middle-income and traditional family structures," said Sheri Steisel, federal affairs counsel for the National Conference of State Legislatures.


"One of the questions is: How can we translate what we know in this area to something that is relevant for low-income families?" she said.

The O'Learys say three years of marital bliss is evidence that the Bush initiative would work.

"It will help the women realize that they need to tell the guys 'Either marry me or move along,'" she said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.