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FRONTLINE #2106
"Let's Get Married"
Air date: November 14, 2002

Produced and Directed by
Ben Loeterman

Written by
Ben Loeterman and Alex Kotlowitz

Correspondent
Alex Kotlowitz

 

ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: Half of all marriages end in divorce.

    JUDGE: So you're Joshua?

    MAN: Yes.

    JUDGE: And you're Stacey?

    WOMAN: Yes.

    JUDGE: And you have a minor child?

    MAN: Yes.

    WOMAN: Yes.

    Gov FRANK KEATING (R), Oklahoma: It's easier to get out of a marriage contract with children than it is to get out of a Tupperware contract.

ANNOUNCER: And politicians are pushing life-long commitments, especially among the poor.

    Prof. JAMES Q. WILSON, Pepperdine University: Marriage is a fragile institution. And unless you enforce it by social mechanisms, society becomes loose at the hinges.

ANNOUNCER: But is this any of the government's business?

    GRANDMOTHER: Who is the government to tell us, because we're poor, we need to get married? Please.

    ALEX KOTLOWITZ, Correspondent: Ashaki, what do you think you'll do if it doesn't work out?

ANNOUNCER: Tonight author Alex Kotlowitz investigates the modern marriage movement in Let's Get Married.

    JULIE BAUMGARDNER, "First Things First": If you're in the wedding, if you can come over here, that would be really helpful. You're in the wedding, Mom.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ, Correspondent: [voice-over] Last spring in Chattanooga, I attended the rehearsal for a rather unusual wedding. A made-for-television event, it was the brainchild of Julie Baumgardner. Her organization, First Things First, wants to have an effect that most traditional of institutions, marriage.

JULIE BAUMGARDNER: I'm not talking about going back to the good old days of Ozzie and Harriet. I'm talking about, when you have strong marriages, you have strong families. And that equates to strong communities. And when you don't have that, everybody's out for themselves. They do their own thing, whatever feels good to you.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Erik and Katrina are the poster couple for a growing national movement that wants to convey the message "marriage matters."

    MINISTER: Erik, I give you this ring that you may place it on the finger of Katrina.

    MORNING SHOW HOST: We have chosen the couple, the bride's dress, the invitations, the wedding party attire, the rings. And now the big announcement: the flowers. Eric Jenkins and Katrina Chatfield join us once again this morning. They are the lucky couple.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The private vows of two people have been packaged for morning television. The lucky couple was selected by viewers, as was every detail of their wedding day.

    MORNING SHOW HOST: What do you think? Nice?

    KATRINA: It was a good choice. And actually, pictures can't really show. We went in to Humphrey's and-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The couple has won an all expenses-paid wedding, honeymoon included. But as Julie Baumgardner makes clear, there are strings attached.

JULIE BAUMGARDNER: We asked them not to live together, to abstain from sex before marriage, and to participate in marriage education- everything that we espouse to be really important for a marriage to get off on the right foot.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Abstinence until marriage? Marriage education? Is this simply a moral crusade, or is the marriage movement onto something bigger?

We know, of course, that over the years, wedding vows have become more brittle, but something surprising is going on.

    JUDGE: Raise your right hand. Solemnly swear the testimony you are about to give will the be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God.

    WOMAN: I do

    JUDGE: How old's the minor child?

    WOMAN: Seven years old

    JUDGE: It's to his best interest, as well as yours, that the court grant this divorce.

    WOMAN: Yes, sir.

    JUDGE: And a standard visitation schedule.

    WOMAN: Yes, sir.

    JUDGE: You are now divorced.

    WOMAN: Thank you.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: It's states in the Bible Belt which lead the nation in divorce. People are marrying young and marrying often. Here in Oklahoma, where the divorce rate is the second highest in the country, you can walk into court and, within minutes, walk out divorced.

Gov FRANK KEATING (R), Oklahoma: Tell me the sense of a system where it is easier to get a marriage license in our state than it is to get a hunting license? Or tell us the sense of a system where it is easier to get out of a marriage contract with children than it is to get out of a Tupperware contract.

    JUDGE: Raise your right hand. Solemnly swear the testimony you're about to give will be the truth, the whole truth-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Governor Keating told me he believes his state is in trouble, and that divorce is a primary reason why.

Gov. FRANK KEATING: Maybe we ought to address these things, try to bully-pulpit, try to jawbone the need for strong marriages and their- and their survival.

    WOMAN: We were together six months.

    JUDGE: And then he left?

    WOMAN: Yeah. He's already been remarried. And we're still not divorced, and he's been remarried and divorced already. So I don't think he's going to come back.

    JUDGE: I don't think so, either.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Stem the tide of divorce, and we'll solve many of society's ills. That's the core message of marriage movement activists, who come armed with selective statistics.

MIKE McMANUS, Marriage Savers: Children of divorced or children of never-married parents are twice as likely to drop out of school. They're 3 times as likely to get pregnant themselves as teenagers, 12 times as likely to be incarcerated if they're children of divorce, 22 times more likely to be incarcerated if they're children of never-married parents. So we're creating the next generation of monsters.

    We are deeply honored to be here today, and we want to say that you folks in Wisconsin know how to do this right.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Mike McManus is a pioneer of the marriage movement. For six years, he's been enlisting clergy across America to help restore a culture of commitment. Madison is his 160th city.

    MIKE McMANUS: Thousands of couples whose marriages would have broken up are being saved because pastors like you were willing to come forward in a public event like this and sign your name to a document that you're not going to do marriages in the same old way anymore. You're going to be more demanding of the couples who come to you to get married. You're going to provide more help to those couples who are in trouble. And I'd like to just close with a prayer. Heavenly Father, we pray for the marriages of this state.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Their message is clear: This very private institution, marriage, has very public consequences.

MIKE McMANUS: What the marriage movement is doing is being able to finally communicate that we have a colossal disaster on our hands, and we have to do something about it. All elements of the culture need to come together and start talking about the "M" word.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: In Oklahoma, Governor Keating was an early convert to the marriage movement's way of thinking.

Gov. FRANK KEATING: I asked Oklahoma State University and Oklahoma University to examine the question of why Oklahoma was poor. And they came back with something quite extraordinary. These economists, that you never see do this, turned the page and said, "You have too much divorce, too many out-of-wedlock births, too much drug abuse and violence." The issue of divorce was paramount to economists as an impoverishing challenge.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: It's situations like Johnni Dyer's that have Governor Keating so concerned. At 36, and with four kids, she's already been married and divorced twice. Now on Welfare, she lives in subsidized housing.

JOHNNI DYER: I was very young. I was still in high school when I got married. He was a preacher's son. We were basically pretty happy, and I think we were just young and we drifted apart.

NARRATOR: On the rebound, Johnni met someone else, Eugene.

JOHNNI DYER: He was a cowboy. He was a cowboy. I think that's really what it was. He had the Wranglers and the boots and the spurs and the hat. And when he proposed to me, it was just a couple of months after I'd met him.

The closer it got, the more nervous I got. And I kept thinking I'm just getting cold feet. This is normal. Well before the judge ever showed up, I started telling Annie, "I don't want to do this. I don't want to get married." And she said, "Then don't. If you feel like that you shouldn't get married"- and I said, "The cake is here. The flowers are here. People are starting to show up. I have to." And she said, "No, you don't have to." She said, "Why don't you want to get married?" And I said, "I just don't. I do not want to get married." And she tried really hard to talk me out of it, and I just kept thinking it's cold feet. And I went ahead and got married.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: And then she got divorced. That happens 20,000 times a year in Oklahoma, almost as often as people get married. In places like rural Oklahoma, the marriage movement aims to persuade people like Johnni to marry smarter. But there's another America, where the picture is much different.

I'm Alex Kotlowitz, and for 15 years I've written about families from Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. Unlike Oklahoma, the trouble here is not too many marriages, but too few. In this neighborhood, only 1 out of 10 children are born to married parents. As we take apart the old structures of public housing and Welfare, what about the fate of the family?

What can the marriage movement offer to people here? How does one restore a sense of commitment in inner-city communities? At recent concert, the legendary Al Green opened with a plea.

    AL GREEN: [singing] Let me tell you one thing. Now it's time for a change. The idea might sound strange, but there's no time to waste. Let's get married-

    ASHAKI HANKERSON: I'm not playing. Lay down. Lay down. Lay down! You got to come get her. I got to go check on the food. Here, I'll give you the baby.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Ashaki Hankerson is a Welfare recipient. At 26, she has seven children by three different men. And she's never been married.

ASHAKI HANKERSON: You know, I just wanted a big family. You know, I didn't plan on having seven kids this soon, but I said, "One day I want to have seven kids," and I got seven.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [on camera] And did you ever think of marrying the father?

ASHAKI HANKERSON: I thought about marrying my oldest daughter's father. But you know, we spent, like, 10 years in a relationship, in and out. But he was kind of crazy. You know, he was violent, really.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [voice-over] The role of low-income fathers is of central concern to economist Ron Mincy.

Prof. RONALD MINCY, Columbia University: The men who she could marry, lots of them are incarcerated. Many of them have not graduated from high school. Many of them have substance abuse problems. Many of them have mental health problems. This is documented. And so it's not clear how good her options are. And that's a primary reason why very few of these couples end up marrying after they have children together.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: With a new baby in the house, Ashaki felt overwhelmed. So her mother, Mae temporarily moved in to help get the kids to and from school.

MAE HANKERSON: She's had these children so fast, until it's just that, you know, it's hard now. And just, you know, I never wanted her to be in a position where she would have to be dependent on anybody else to take care of her or her kids.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: It's Ashaki's family in Chicago - seven children, dependent on Welfare, no husband - and Johnni's family in Oklahoma - four children, dependent on Welfare, two ex-husbands - that has stirred debate.

Prof. JAMES Q. WILSON, Pepperdine University: Marriage is a fragile institution, and unless you enforce it by social mechanisms, society becomes loose at the hinges.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Political scientist James Q. Wilson has tried to make sense of America's social ills, most notably crime. Now he's written a book that suggests it all comes down to marriage.

JAMES Q. WILSON: The family is the core unit of social cohesion because it solves problems that human biology does not solve automatically. It gets men committed to the idea of caring for and raising the children they have fathered. It provides a way of managing property. It provides a way of limiting sexual access. And above all, it provides a way of supplying to children the core values that a society wants to inculcate in children.

[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]

Prof. RONALD MINCY: We are right in the middle of this conversation today. We are right in the middle in communities all around the country, where black people are recognizing that our children are doing not as well as they could be. And so how can we find the set of words that are not so explosive as to send us all running from the room, so that we can ask ourselves what is going to happen our children and what right do we have to impinge upon one another's behavior?

    MAN AT REGISTRATION TABLE: There's a room locator in here. And also, on the easel over there, there's directions to all the different workshops, as well.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: But here it's all about behavior. I went to Washington, D.C., for Smart Marriages, an annual gathering of the marriage movement. I found a loose amalgam of family therapists, self-help gurus, social scientists and Christian conservatives.

    HARRIET McMANUS: The interesting thing is that if you use Reconciling God's Way-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Mike McManus's wife, Harriet, is working the Marriage Savers booth.

    HARRIET McMANUS: -he's going to see a person who's changing. And changed- changed people change people.

    MONOGAMY WORKSHOP LEADER: You're losing the "us-ness" of the relationship.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Some topics, like "Hot Monogamy," might not seem as traditional as one would expect.

    MONOGAMY WORKSHOP LEADER: There is an electrochemical field force that goes between two people. At four feet, my heart rate is registering in your brain. An EEG would show your heart rate and my heart rate.

    WORKSHOP LEADER: How many of you have somebody you'd like to change?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: "Change" is clearly the byword here, with the thought that marriage is more about skills than romance.

    WORKSHOP LEADER: And this is a room full of people- of change experts.

    WORKSHOP LEADER: There's got to be some other things that are going on for couples that are more amenable to change. And in fact, those are the things that we now call the dynamic factors. Those include-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: This year, over 300 participants were sent by their employers: state and federal governments.

    WORKSHOP LEADER: -negative behavior patterns, interactional patterns that we call danger signs.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: And the keynote speaker was Wade Horn, a high-ranking Bush administration official.

    WADE F. HORN, Asst. Secy. Children and Families, HHS: I'm here really to honor each and every one of you because-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The Bush administration has embraced the marriage movement's thinking.

    WADE F. HORN: -is to use government policy and its levers to try to increase the proportion of kids in married households-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: And in an unusual twist, is willing to spend on a social program, one it believes will help get poor families off Welfare.

WADE F. HORN: Can government be the solution for everything that ails the American family? Of course not. But I do think that we have moved beyond the question of whether government ought to be involved in some way on the issue of marriage to the question of how.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: President Bush is determined to move marriage up the domestic agenda. A new Welfare reform bill is in the works that would use marriage to fight poverty.

    Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: [February 26, 2002] Children from two-parent families are less likely to end up in poverty, drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out of wedlock. You see, strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children, and stable families should be the central goal of American Welfare policy.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: But government's role in marriage is an historically charged issue. I wasn't surprised that President Bush chose to deliver his message at an African-American church. In some sense, his audience had heard these words before, nearly 40 years ago, from a liberal president, Lyndon Johnson.

    Pres. LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON: [June 4, 1964] Unless we work to strengthen the family, to create conditions under which most parents will stay together, all the rest will never be enough to cut completely the circle of despair and deprivation.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The report that spawned the speech was lambasted, and its young author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pilloried by liberals and black leaders.

Prof. RONALD MINCY: The reaction to the Moynihan report was really a firestorm of controversy and reaction. Moynihan basically said that we have a national tragedy in the sort of deterioration of the black family, high crime rates, juvenile delinquency. Much of this is related to single mothers trying to raise adolescents alone. And in turn, much of that is related to the unemployment that black men experience because they experience discrimination in the labor market.

And the last portion of that was all but forgotten in the media and in the public debate and focused only on his provocative phrase, a "tangle of pathology."

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Moynihan's report expressed concern that a third of black children lived with only one parent. It was taken as a criticism of black families. Barbara Whitehead was a college student at the time.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD, Author, "The Divorce Culture": A lot of the attack on Moynihan came from the left. Feminists didn't like what he had to say. Some academics attacked him. African-American leaders, though the original speech had been vetted by several, went after him for not appreciating the strengths of the African-American family.

Prof. RONALD MINCY: The whole subject of the black family was abandoned by liberal scholars, leaving what we know about families and sort of the policy recommendations about how to respond to them to conservatives.

    ["Murphy Brown," September 21, 1992]

    ACTOR: Take as long a shower as you want. I am just going to sit here and watch the evening news.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: In 1992, a seemingly frivolous moment marked yet another turning point. A vice president's speech about family values became comic material for a sitcom.

    NEWS ANCHOR: -citing Murphy Brown as an example.

    CANDICE BERGEN: What? Was that about me?

    ACTOR: Well, it sounded like it, but they're showing a clip of Dan Quayle.

    Vice Pres. DAN QUAYLE: It doesn't help when primetime TV has Murphy Brown mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.

    CANDICE BERGEN: Did you hear that, Frank?

    ACTOR: Shhh! I'm trying to listen.

    NEWS ANCHOR: Mr. Quayle later expanded his remarks to say that he believed examples like Murphy Brown glamorized single motherhood, sending a dangerous-

    CANDICE BERGEN: Glamorized single motherhood? What planet is he on? Look at me, Frank. Am I glamorous?

BARBARA WHITEHEAD: People jumped to the defense of Candice Bergen, the actress who played Murphy Brown, to Murphy Brown as a television character, to the right of single mothers to have children if they could afford them, this was another lifestyle choice, to the idea that, you know, men walked away from families, what was a single mother to do, to the idea that, good for Murphy Brown, she didn't decide to have an abortion. Criticism of Quayle was as intense as it had been for Moynihan.

JAMES Q. WILSON: But then, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a famous essay in The Atlantic Monthly magazine entitled "Why Dan Quayle was Right."

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Liberals dismissed Whitehead's article, accusing her of pushing the conservatives' agenda.

BARBARA WHITEHEAD: The reaction to the Dan Quayle article was angry. It was one of condemnation that a publication that had sort of liberal credentials would attempt to defend Dan Quayle.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: But the argument would have an effect in the liberal camp. A new research study called "Fragile Families" was funded by the Ford Foundation under the stewardship of Ron Mincy. It confirmed that, all things being equal, children do better in two-parent families.

RONALD MINCY: I think that the gulf between liberals and conservatives on family issues is closing. What we agree on is that there is a problem, and I think we agree on it in the following way: Our children are not doing family in ways that are going to promote the wellbeing of our grandchildren. That's the agreement. What's not clear is what are we going to do about it.

[www.pbs.org: Read the full interview]

    MINISTER: And we ask for protection, for blessings, and for grace from you today in Jesus name. Amen.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: It comes as no surprise that Chattanooga's TV wedding got high ratings. After all, we're a nation obsessed with marriage. The problem is we may not know how to make marriage work. Almost 40 years after the Moynihan report, the numbers that seemed so devastating about black families now apply to all families in the U.S.

Moynihan recently called this erosion of marriage and family the most momentous change in his lifetime. A third of all children now live with only one parent, and that has government's attention.

[inaugural address, January 11, 1999]

    Gov. FRANK KEATING: Our divorce rate significantly exceeds the national average. It must be reduced.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: In 1999, Governor Keating vowed to do something about it. He challenged Oklahomans to weigh the consequence of their most personal decisions.

Gov. FRANK KEATING: Maybe it is better to tell them: Are you aware of the fact that this is a lifetime contract? Do you know the consequences of marriage, the obligations of having children? And think about this. Don't just jump into a marriage contract. Don't jump into a marriage before you're convinced that this is a lifetime obligation.

    LES PARROTT: Hey, how many of you are engaged to be married? Would you just stand up if you're engaged to be married? Look at that! And anybody in this crowd that's actually married?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Les and Leslie Parrot, Christian family therapists from Seattle, were recruited by the governor to be Oklahoma's marriage ambassadors. They've preached to young audiences on college campuses across the state.

    LES PARROTT: Why? Because if you try to build intimacy with another person before you've done the hard work of getting whole on your own, all your relationships become an attempt to complete yourself, and they will fall dismally flat.

Gov. FRANK KEATING: We brought in the Parrotts to step back and have people debate it, to discuss it, without the heavy hand of government saying what you should or shouldn't do, but at least to begin the debate and the discussion.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The Parrots are just the most visible part of Oklahoma's marriage initiative, which is expected to cost $10 million. Listening to them, I thought about how hard this is. How do you unravel matters of the heart?

    LES PARROTT: -as lovely as they are. And that's why we say one of the secrets to building a love life that lasts is to get yourself whole, is to get yourself healthy, to understand your compulsion for completion.

    RELATIONSHIP SKILLS INSTRUCTOR: We're going to make the stand in Oklahoma. Who knew it would be Oklahoma? Who knew that Keating would come along? And he has drawn a line in the sand, and he's basically said all of you are going to show the rest of the world how to do this.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Using Welfare money, the state is training its workers to teach relationship skills. It uses a curriculum called PREP.

    RELATIONSHIP SKILLS INSTRUCTOR: Here's the key to PREP. It's research-based and-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Oklahoma has brought in a team of national experts, hoping to become a model for the rest of the country.

    RELATIONSHIP SKILLS INSTRUCTOR: Really, the stream of research that this program is most directly built on-

    RELATIONSHIP SKILLS INSTRUCTOR: We're going to learn together about how to do this. It may feel at times that it's like inventing the plane as we fly it - kind of nerve-wracking - but there is no question the direction we need to fly in is the right one, that children, adults, our society-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: I wondered, could any of this be taken into the neighborhoods I know in Chicago? People face tough issues here, which is not to say there's any lack of love or romance or that marriage isn't on people's minds.

I met a young lay minister, David Coleman. He let me follow him on his neighborhood rounds.

    DAVID COLEMAN: There's only three different things we talked about at our last session. This session is-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: David's only 22, but as part of his church work, he dispenses advice, in this instance to a couple who just had a baby and are considering marriage.

    DAVID COLEMAN: What are some of the issues? Tell me about them.

    WOMAN: Well, sometimes what I get upset about is I can explain something to him, like, two or three times, and I feel like he's not listening to me.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Who among us hasn't wrestled with these same issues, or tried to work out the complicated calculus of a relationship?

    MAN: She'll leave and go over to her friend's, and when she comes back here, she's either so tired we can't talk or anything.

    DAVID COLEMAN: Every day, you need that quality time just to- I mean, just to sit and look at his face.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The question here is, what's keeping them from taking that next step, from getting married, if only for the sake of the child?

    DAVID COLEMAN: You got to do that. You know, you got to show him that time, that romancing time, OK? So y'all hold hands, and we're going to pray. Father God, in the name of Jesus-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: David can only offer his spiritual comfort.

    DAVID COLEMAN: Bring them together, God, as one. God, just bring love and happiness into this relationship. In Jesus name we pray and we say Amen.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: But it's counsel he's struggling with himself. David Coleman, I learned, is in virtually the same situation. He and his girlfriend, Amber Surrel, who's 20, are about to have a baby.

    AMBER SURREL: Oh, it's kicking.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: David and Amber haven't been together long. They met within months of Amber's mother dying.

    AMBER SURREL: The head's down there.

    DAVID COLEMAN: Like a leg or something.

    AMBER SURREL: The leg- yeah, the legs are up here somewhere.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Amber's Aunt Joyce took her in and looked after her.

    AMBER SURREL Just keep rubbing.

JOYCE PORTIS: I asked my nephew, I said, "Do you know anybody Amber could meet, maybe just go out for dinner or something, just do something?" So he said, "Yeah, I got a friend named David." So she said- he said, "He's a preacher." So I said, "Oh, really?" I said, "Well, OK. A preacher ought to be OK."

AMBER SURREL: When he got in the car, I did not say nothing to him. I just drove, listened to the music and listened to my cousin.

DAVID COLEMAN: And when I saw her, I really did like her. She looked- I said, "She looked real good," and everything.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [on camera] Did he ask you if he could kiss you or-

AMBER SURREL: I kissed him.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: You kissed him?

AMBER SURREL: Uh-huh.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Because you thought he might not-

AMBER SURREL: No. Yeah. You know. I thought he probably won't kiss me, so I kissed him.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [voice-over] This is where David preaches, at his family's storefront church on Chicago's West Side. When we met David, he was looking for a paying job. He'd been laid off from a position at the Post Office. David's Uncle Esperdell is also a minister, and over time has become a father figure to David.

ESPERDELL McGEE: You got the baby coming. You know, where's the wife? [unintelligible] "Man, when you're getting married? Hey, when're you going to do it?" He said, "We're getting it together." Man, you need to hurry up. What you waiting on? You know, tomorrow's not promised to you. Marry that girl!

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Esperdell's been in David's shoes. He fathered eight children, six of them before seeing the light on marriage. Amber's aunt, on the other hand, hopes Amber first pursues her dream of going to college.

JOYCE PORTIS: At 20 years old, I think that's kind of young. And I think she thinks it's kind of young, too. I'll be honest with you, she always says, "It's what David wants to do." She never says to me, "Well, I want to get married." She's never said that.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [on camera] When you were young, did you dream about getting married?

AMBER SURREL: No. I thought about just being a single person, have no kids, you know, nothing.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: So you didn't dream about weddings or-

AMBER SURREL: I didn't dream it, no, because everybody in my family was single, raising their kids.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [on camera] But Esperdell, like the marriage movement, believes marriage is the foundation of public life, that it would benefit not only the young couple but the community, as well.

ESPERDELL McGEE: Well, a young man growing up without a father in this neighborhood- it's not one of the baddest neighborhoods, but there's a lot of influences on drugs and doing different things to make some money. And the problem is coming in because there's no father there to say, "Hey, you're not going to do that."

    ANN NESBY: [singing] I'm a little old-fashioned. That's the way it is with me-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [voice-over] It may be old-fashioned, but Al Green's new hit with Ann Nesby seems to echo and what the social scientists have been finding.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD, Nat'l Marriage Project, Rutgers Univ.: We don't like to think of it this way, but marriage is an institution that covers more than just the private, intimate, sexual and romantic relationships between two freely consenting adults. Marriage is the primary social institution for rearing children.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Remember Ashaki Hankerson? She's found the man she wants to marry. Steven Thomas is the father of her seventh child. They have plans to wed at City Hall in a couple of weeks, and he's given her a ring.

STEVEN THOMAS: She makes me real happy, though. I just feel like everything's going to be all right, you know, like she's my comforter. You know, like how you wrap up in your blanket at night when you're cold? That's how she is for me. When I see her, I'm happy. All the time, my heart, just my body just goes through a thing, just like, "Oh!" This is my love, you know? That's the way I feel. That's the way she makes me feel.

ASHAKI HANKERSON: My kids, they love him. They love him a lot. That's one thing that make me care about him. You know, we just seem so right together. You know how you just be with a person, you feel like you're just right for each other? That's how I feel with him. I don't feel- I feel comfortable around him, like, can't nothing go wrong, you know? When I'm with him it's, like, this is my soulmate. And I think that's why I want to marry him.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: For social scientists, Ashaki's desire to marry now represents a significant shift in the wind. There's a file drawer full of stories just like hers at Northwestern University, a groundbreaking study, part of the Fragile Families survey, is being directed by Kathy Edin.

Assoc. Prof. KATHRYN EDIN, Assoc. Prof. Northwestern Univ.: I was out in the field all of the time, interviewing low-income single mothers. What really struck me in those interviews was how many people talked about the desire to get married. And I would go back, you know, and talk to my friends in academia, and they would say, "Oh, they can't mean that." But I would hear it again and again.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Edin is following 75 couples over 4 years to understand their attitudes towards marriage. She's found that though 8 out of 10 couples interviewed said they had specific plans to marry, after 2 years, less than 1 in 10 had actually done so.

Assoc. Prof. KATHRYN EDIN: What's interesting and intriguing and complicated about the story is the criteria they have for marriage. Marriage isn't something you do now, and then you and she work together as a couple, or you know, to achieve your dream, the way it maybe was for our parents. But marriage is the finish line. It's the frosting on the cake. It's graduation.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: In fact, Ashaki has begun thinking that maybe she and Steven should wait to get married.

ASHAKI HANKERSON: I was ready, I thought, until I started finding myself feeling not so happy. You know, we're not really stable. He can't find a job right now. And as much as I love him, I don't want us to go ahead and rush into something that's so important and that should be so important because I don't want to rush into it and then it all backfire.

I took off the ring, and I put it back in the box. And he was, like, "When are we going to get married?" And I was, "Why are you so anxious to get married?" And I told him, I said, "It's a secret day." And he was, like, "A secret day?" And I said, "Yeah, we're going to get married on a secret day, when I'm ready."

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: If in Chicago people seem to approach marriage too cautiously, in Oklahoma they perhaps enter it too carelessly. Now the state is trying to foster a stronger sense of commitment.

As part of her Welfare requirement, Johnni Dyer gets picked up with other Welfare recipients to attend work training courses at a local technical school. Now they're taking relationship training, as well.

JOHNNI DYER: The week that I take the PREP class is the week that I'm also filing for divorce, which kind of made it hard because so much of it said "your spouse," or something like that.

    PREP INSTRUCTOR: What's the difference between a sensual relationship and a sexual relationship?

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Oklahoma's PREP is a 12-hour curriculum. Here 13 women and 1 man learn how to communicate better with a spouse.

    PREP INSTRUCTOR: Sexuality speaks more of the act.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Johnni is trying her best to reconcile the hopeful message she gets in class with what she told a court about her last marriage.

JOHNNI DYER: He had threatened me. He had hit me hard enough to knock me down while I was holding Cassidy in my arms, so I fell with her. He then started in with the girls, just the- "You're stupid. You're ignorant like your mama."

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: It's stories like Johnni's that have some Washington politicians worried about government's push for marriage.

    Sen. BLANCHE LINCOLN (D), Arkansas: Describe to me, Mr. Horn, how you and the administration will assure that none of the money for marriage promotion will go to keeping women in abusive relationships.

    WADE F. HORN, Asst. Secy. Children and Families, HHS: Well, you- as you know, our proposal is about promoting healthy marriages. It's not about simply moving marriage rates. And so we're not about simply encouraging marriage, per se, but healthy marriages.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Wade Horn has proposed spending $300 million a year on experiments like Oklahoma's. And he's winning support in Congress.

    Sen. RICK SANTORUM (R), Pennsylvania: Every statistic that I'm aware of - and I'd be anxious to hear if there's one on the other side - says that marriage is better for children - every one - and usually by a very large margin. And so the question I have is, why are we neutral on this issue if we care about children?

    Sen. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: Fostering strong family relationships and encouraging families to stay together are noble causes that none of us should apologize for and that ought to be included in America's Welfare system.

    Sen. MAX BAUCUS (D), Montana: I'm from Montana.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: The opponents decry the Marriage proposal as both intrusive and unproven.

    Sen. MAX BAUCUS: To me, like most Montanans, marriage is a personal- it's a private choice. I recommend it. It's not something the government should interfere with.

    Sen. BLANCHE LINCOLN: Marrying a low-income unmarried mother to her child's father will not automatically move her family out of poverty. We have to remember that. Just automatically creating marriage does not achieve the goals of what we want to do in Welfare reform.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: But the administration is holding its ground and is encouraging trial efforts like Oklahoma's.

Sitting in Johnni's PREP class, I wondered whether role-playing exercises like this would have any lasting impact.

    JOHNNI DYER: Am I supposed to do this with the speaker/listener techniques or-

    INSTRUCTOR: Yeah.

    JOHNNI DYER: OK. I feel like I have been working really hard, while you sit at home and do nothing but watch TV. And you don't even get out and try to find another job.

I can see things where I was very wrong in the way I handled discussions in both marriages. And maybe had I tried some of these techniques, things would have been different. I don't know that they would have with the second one. I really don't think they could have.

BARBARA DAFOE WHITEHEAD, Nat'l Marriage Project, Rutgers Univ.: The only value I can see is really that this now is a public responsibility. People now understand that this is important, that, you know, it's not anymore a matter of debate. This is a way that we recognize and institutionalize some kind of consensus. But as to the nuts and bolts of it, I have no idea.

    PREP PARTICIPANT: After seeing everyone I know be married and divorced, married and divorced, it's just, like, why would I be stupid enough to subject myself to such, you know, a thrashing, you know, when it's better off- I can just do this by myself.

    PREP INSTRUCTOR: But what are you losing?

    PREP PARTICIPANT: Nothing, at this point.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: For Governor Keating, one of the toughest issues the program has to address is the widespread acceptance of having children out of wedlock.

Gov. FRANK KEATING: What we're trying to do is to say to that couple, "Now that you've made this decision, OK, get married, understand the lifetime commitment to that child, understand the lifetime commitment to a marriage contract" because when we begin a social practice, like having out-of-wedlock births, and you approve of it, you're going to have a lot more of it. Is it healthy? No, it's not healthy. And you need to be judgmental and say that.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: But Governor Keating wouldn't be happy to hear what Johnni and Kelle had to say outside of class. As they got their nails done by beauticians-in-training, I listened in on their conversation.

    JOHNNI DYER: I try to preach to my kids, and I- you know, my girls are going to know the dangers of what can happen because if something ever did happen, I would not make my girls get married.

    KELLE DOYLE: Yeah. There's- that's the first thing my mom told me when I told her I was pregnant. She said, "You don't have to get married."

    JOHNNI DYER: Well, see, I always say if any of my girls ever came home and told me they were pregnant, I would not make them get married because that's just- they're getting married for the wrong reason.

    KELLE DOYLE: Yeah.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Those same attitudes, of course, run deep in Chicago. David and Amber have a new baby, Maya.

    Dr. TONY HAMPTON, Circle Family Care: It was pretty tough, huh? It was very difficult, but you did really well. I was telling you earlier that-

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Along with medical care, Dr. Hampton dispenses marital advice.

Dr. TONY HAMPTON: I encourage them to consider marriage, but I try not to do it in a very judgmental way because you have to be very, you know, careful not to be too critical because people tend to close their doors and not open up when you do that.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Some think Dr. Hampton's approach has more potential than any government program.

Prof. RONALD MINCY, Columbia University: Wade Horn cannot look a young woman in the eye and tell her this, not an inner-city young woman. And that's what the problem is with most of this marriage promotion policy, that it's coming from a direction that has no connection with the people who are making the decisions we're trying to change. And it is going to fall flat on its face.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Many in the community would agree.

(on camera): How many of you are married?

[voice-over] I sat down with a group of grandmothers to talk about the government's efforts.

[on camera] When you talk to the policy makers in Washington and they talk about marriage, much of it is directed towards the urban poor, towards the poor in the inner city, towards- [crosstalk]

GRANDMOTHER: I'm really insulted by it. Who is the government to tell us, because we poor, we need to get married?

GRANDMOTHER: Well, if they've got- if they know that much, then why won't they do something about the poor? They can remove that, and then the other things will fit into place, too.

GRANDMOTHER: Marriage does not take you out of poverty. It really doesn't. You can be married, and you still can't get a job.

GRANDMOTHER: One thing that's for sure. Without the finance, there will be no marriage. The marriage can't- it won't hold without the money.

GRANDMOTHER: They fighting and scraping, so they leave.

GRANDMOTHER: When you got to worry about how you're going to eat, live and go to the bathroom, marriage is way down on the bottom of that list.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [voice-over] This is the heart of the debate: Is it culture or economics or a bit of both?

Prof. JAMES Q. WILSON, Pepperdine University: There is the view that we can manage the marriage problem by redistributing money more efficiently. I think this is profoundly wrong. It is wrong because redistributing income simply makes it, for some people, easier to raise children without a father present. They do it with more money, but they do it with no greater effect.

Assoc. Prof. KATHRYN EDIN, Assoc. Prof. Northwestern Univ.: We're talking about people who can't make ends meet from month to month, who are frequently unemployed, who then, you know, might find they have to make all kinds of choices they don't want to make, like going on Welfare or taking an illegal job.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Ashaki's wedding plans have taken another turn. Steven was arrested for selling drugs and sentenced to three months in boot camp.

STEVEN THOMAS: I was just trying to help her out the best way that I could, you know. But sometimes you do the things you do and end up where you end up.

ASHAKI HANKERSON: It's kind of confusing. You know, I wish he wasn't out there, and I get mad at him because he's out there. But at the same time, I don't feel so upset with him because I know the reason he was out there. He feel like, "I have to go do this in order to get my kids milk and Pampers," you know? And it's kind of- you know, it's kind of a messed-up situation, you know? I wish he didn't feel like he had to do that.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Ashaki's ring is no longer in its box on the television. Her monthly check spent, she needed money.

[on camera] So how much did you get when you pawned the ring.

ASHAKI HANKERSON: Nothing much. Nothing much. Thirty dollars.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: And what were you able to buy with that?

ASHAKI HANKERSON: Pampers and milk. That's what I got. And I hold onto a few dollars, you know, for bread. You know, my kids go through two loaves a day, so bread, milk. I got a gallon of milk. I got some bread. I got some Pampers.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: [voice-over] Ashaki's daughter, Ashandra, has drawn her a picture of the missing ring, a child's plea for her and Steven to stay together. At least on this, the experts now agree: It would probably be better for the children if they did.

And what about Amber and David? After Maya's birth, talk of marriage disappeared. But then I saw them a month later, and in that time, David's Uncle Esperdell had sat down with both of them.

AMBER SURREL: Now his uncle talked to him and pushed him. And I had to talk to him to let him know, you know, I'm ready to do it. So we're supposed to be doing it soon.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Soon? The next week, I found myself at what used to be called a shotgun wedding- though I don't mean to suggest that love or romance was absent. It's just that I'm not convinced this ceremony would have taken place had there not been a child involved. Might this couple have benefited from a program like Oklahoma's? Maybe. But Joyce is unconvinced her niece will be any better off now.

For Esperdell, this is all about duty and obligation.

    PASTOR: Do you, sir, take this woman to be your lawful wife?

    DAVID COLEMAN: I do.

    PASTOR: Do you take this man to be your lawful husband?

    AMBER SURREL: I do.

ESPERDELL McGEE: It's a happy day for me, and I pray it be the beginning of happy days for them.

JOYCE PORTIS: It didn't go out the way I had hoped it would because I was really hoping that Amber would just say no. It's sad for me because I was hoping that she could have- I guess I was hoping her life could be planned a little bit more. I don't know. It's hard for me to say right now.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: This was uncomfortable stuff for me, being in the middle of a family dispute. I found myself asking, is this any of my business? Is this any of government's business? Even if we agree that marriage is crucial to the rebuilding of community, can government actually find ways to nudge couples to the altar?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose 1965 report was in many ways prescient, has warned, "If you expect government to change families, you know more about government than I do."

[www.pbs.org: Kotlowitz's thoughts about this story]

    JOHNNI DYER: You pulled your tooth! Oh! Let me see. How cool! Tooth Fairy's going to visit you.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: When we left Johnni Dyer in Oklahoma, she was sharing the burden of raising two young families with her friend, Annie. She still hangs onto the dream of a happy marriage.

JOHNNI DYER: I won't rush into anything again. But I think there's somebody out there. My sister is married to a wonderful man. You know, he's been really good to her. They are really happy, and there has to be one out there somewhere. And if not, then I'll grow old alone. But I know what to look for this time.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Ashaki, has returned to the pawn shop with a friend of Steven's to retrieve her ring. She, too, clings to the dream of marriage. But would marriage lift Ashaki out of poverty or find Steven a job? All that seems clear is that Steven's presence would help the children.

So how best to make marriage work?

    ASHAKI HANKERSON: I got my ring. Baby, go back on that finger! Oh! Oh, great. That looks good.

ALEX KOTLOWITZ: Marriage, one historian has suggested, is both society's bedrock and its fault line.

 

Let's Get Married

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ANNOUNCER: There's more on FRONTLINE's Web site. Correspondent Alex Kotlowitz shares his thoughts on reporting this story. Researchers and policy experts discuss the modern marriage movement and what's behind the erosion of the traditional family, plus readings on relationships and marriage offered by the pro-marriage movement and stats on the changes in the family over the past half century. Then join the discussion and find out if this program will be shown again on your PBS station at PBS on line, pbs.org, or write to this address [Dear FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]

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