The disintegration of marriage is the issue for 21st century America.
While 90 percent of America’s top jobs require a college degree, 60 percent of children in urban schools don’t graduate from high school. In Detroit, a predominantly African American city, only 25% of children graduate. For African American males, this drops to 20%. Surprisingly, it is still worse for Detroit’s white male youths—only 17 percent graduate from high school. This phenomenon is not racial. Nor is it just an issue of the urban poor.
The U.S. ranks 49th in the world in literacy, and 28th out of 40 countries in math literacy. We cannot blame lack adequate spending. Despite welfare expenditures for the poor and middle class in the tens of trillions since the mid sixties, including for example programs such as Head Start and Bush’s “No Child Left Behind”, Americans fail to stand out in comparison let alone compete with citizens of other nations.
Children of divorce or of non-marriage are three times as likely to be expelled from school or to get pregnant as teenagers. A federal study reported that children of single parents are 77 percent more likely to be physically abused than those with married parents. A British study put the risk much higher: A child living with an unmarried mother is 14 times as apt to be physically abused by the mother. Children of divorce live four years less than those of intact families.
A fresh focus is needed. How about rebuilding marriage in America?
Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, and the godfather of Welfare Reform has written: “If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, nearly three-quarters of the nation’s impoverished youth would immediately be lifted out of poverty.”
To lay the foundation, we must first increase the marriage rate among young couples by removing government subsidies that encourage having children out-of-wedlock. Why should the government reward single parenthood with welfare, food stamps, free medical care, housing subsidies, or a guarantee of child support from a former spouse when abandoning marital vows without a good reason such as genuine domestic violence? Amongst the poor, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation estimates “The cost of subsidizing single parenthood is $280 billion. The people who receive these very large subsidies should no longer get one-way handouts.”
Rector argues that food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit and other subsidies should be conditioned on full-time work. Sound familiar? Welfare Reform changed the open-ended entitlement to a maximum of five years and required at least part-time work.
Pat Fagan of the Family Research Council says this system “is a massive injustice. Married people are the source of a massive transfer of payments to broken families. Those who stay together are also paying for those adults who do not do that.” He adds, “The system is even unjust to kids born out-of-wedlock, who are not getting what they need to become an adult,” –the influence of a father as well as a mother.
And most remain poor, despite the subsidies. If poor parents simply married, they would enter the middle class. Cutting benefits is unthinkable in our current economy, but what if marriage penalties were removed?
A single mom earning $12,000 gets a certain level of benefits. Right now, if she marries the man she’s living with, she loses thousands in subsidies for food stamps, health care, and housing. Why not give her the same level of benefits for two years if she marries? Married men earn more, and the need for subsides declines over time. Reward the boyfriend, too, for making the right decision.
Studies show the poor want to marry, but can’t afford it. So let’s remove the marriage penalty.
A second marriage strategy is to decrease the divorce rate by reforming laws and court procedures so that marriage preservation becomes the goal. Research shows that divorce is opposed in four out of five cases by one spouse. In more than half the cases, there is no major conflict in the relationship.
“Many are devastated to discover that they can be forced into divorce by procedures entirely beyond their control,” writes Stephen Baskerville in “Touchstone” magazine. “Divorce licenses unprecedented government intrusion into family life, including the power to sunder families, seize children, loot family wealth.”
Consider two facts: Each year 2-3 million restraining orders are issued to separate husbands from wives and to keep fathers away from their children. Yet half of all restraining orders do not include even an allegation of physical abuse.
I have long argued No Fault Divorce laws should be modified if children are involved, to require the mutual consent of the other parent, unless a major fault (e.g. adultery, physical abuse) is proven by clear and convincing evidence, a more reasonable standard of evidence than the hearsay and false representations that now dominate our court system.
Another essential reform is to penalize spouses who file false restraining orders or make false allegations of abuse, perhaps reducing their share of family assets or imposing criminal penalties.
Still another vital approach to brokenness is to turn to the faith community and their respective scriptural sources. For example, the Apostle Paul, educated as a Jewish Rabbi, wrote in I Corinthians: “Flee fornication.” What is cohabitation but fornication raised to the 10th power?
The Churches, synagogues, mosques and temples could all take a strong position on cohabitation requiring marrying couples to discontinue cohabitation before initiating wedding preparation.
“He who sins sexually, sins against his own body,” the Apostle Paul warned. Is that wisdom not stunningly clear when 90 percent of cohabiting couples fail to build a marriage? In my nearly five decades as a journalist, sociology always backs up Scripture.
What is a better way than living together to test a relationship between a man and a woman? In our home church, my wife and I created a four-step plan that we have taken to thousands of churches:
1. Require a premarital inventory that asks couples if they agree or disagree with150-200 statements like this: “To end an argument, I tend to give in too quickly.” The inventory gives couples an objective view of their strengths and where they need to grow.
2. Offer couples a trained Mentor Couple to discuss all of the items over six sessions of 2-3 hours. Mentors also offer exercises to teach skills of conflict resolution, help them prepare a budget, etc.
3. Move apart, if cohabiting. Our church won’t knowingly marry cohabiting couples. If they refuse to do so, they still get the inventory, mentoring and skill training. We stand against the sin, but still love the sinners.
4. Stop having sex until the wedding. We show them a study that reports a much lower divorce rate for those who are chaste. The sexually active are two-thirds more likely to divorce. Of 60 couples we have personally mentored, only ten were chaste when they came to us. But of the 50 who were sexually active, 43 took the challenge to be chaste before marriage. To our knowledge, none of the couples who married have divorced, although nine did not marry.
Result? Of 288 couples our church prepared for marriage, a big 19% (55) prevented a bad marriage before it began by opting not to marry. Of 233 who married, there were only seven divorces/separations in a decade. After an additional eight years, we identified four more divorces. Compare our 95 percent success rate with cohabitants’ 90 percent failure rate.
Marriage mentor couples whose own marriages once nearly failed, can also offer mentoring to couples with a similar problem that saves 80% to 90% of couples whose marriages are in crisis.
The time for marriage is now.
Mike McManus is co-founder with his wife of Marriage Savers, which has worked with 10,000 pastors and priests to create Community Marriage Policies that have reduced divorce and cohabitation rates, and raised marriage rates.