ANNOUNCER: Tonight on FRONTLINE: Half of all
marriages end in divorce.
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
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.
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,
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Erik and Katrina are the poster couple
for a growing national movement that wants to convey the message "marriage
MINISTER: Erik, I give you this ring that you may place it on the finger of
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.
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
KATRINA: It was a good choice. And
actually, pictures can't really show. We went in to Humphrey's and-
KOTLOWITZ: The couple has won an all expenses-paid
wedding, honeymoon included. But
as Julie Baumgardner makes clear, there are strings attached.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Abstinence until marriage? Marriage education? Is this simply a moral crusade, or is
the marriage movement onto something bigger?
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.
JUDGE: It's to his best interest, as well as yours, that the court grant this
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.
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
KOTLOWITZ: Governor Keating told me he believes
his state is in trouble, and that divorce is a primary reason why.
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: 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
don't think so, either.
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.
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
We are deeply honored to be here today, and we
want to say that you folks in Wisconsin know how to do this right.
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
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Their message is clear: This very
private institution, marriage, has very public consequences.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: In Oklahoma, Governor Keating was an
early convert to the marriage movement's way of thinking.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Ashaki Hankerson is a Welfare
recipient. At 26, she has seven
children by three different men. And she's never been married.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: [on camera] And did you ever think of marrying the
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.
KOTLOWITZ: [voice-over] The role of low-income fathers is of
central concern to economist Ron Mincy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
JAMES Q. WILSON, Pepperdine University: Marriage is a fragile institution, and unless you enforce it by social
mechanisms, society becomes loose at the hinges.
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.
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.
Read the full interview]
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.
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.
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.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: "Change" is clearly the
byword here, with the thought that marriage is more about skills than romance.
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-
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.
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-
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-
KOTLOWITZ: And in an unusual twist, is willing to
spend on a social program, one it believes will help get poor families off
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.
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
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.
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
KOTLOWITZ: The report that spawned the speech was
lambasted, and its young author, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, pilloried by liberals
and black leaders.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
KOTLOWITZ: In 1992, a seemingly frivolous moment
marked yet another turning point. A vice president's speech about family values became comic material for
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?
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?
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
Q. WILSON: But then, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote
a famous essay in The Atlantic Monthly magazine entitled "Why Dan Quayle was Right."
KOTLOWITZ: Liberals dismissed Whitehead's article,
accusing her of pushing the conservatives' agenda.
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.
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
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.
Read the full interview]
MINISTER: And we ask for protection, for blessings, and for grace from you today
in Jesus name. Amen.
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.
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.
address, January 11, 1999]
Gov. FRANK KEATING: Our divorce rate significantly exceeds
the national average. It must be
KOTLOWITZ: In 1999, Governor Keating vowed to do
something about it. He challenged
Oklahomans to weigh the consequence of their most personal decisions.
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?
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
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
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Using Welfare money, the state is
training its workers to teach relationship skills. It uses a curriculum called PREP.
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-
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.
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-
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.
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.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: The question here is, what's keeping
them from taking that next step, from getting married, if only for the sake of
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-
KOTLOWITZ: David can only offer his spiritual
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.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: David and Amber haven't
been together long. They met
within months of Amber's mother dying.
AMBER SURREL: The leg- yeah, the legs are up here somewhere.
KOTLOWITZ: Amber's Aunt Joyce took her in and
looked after her.
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."
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.
COLEMAN: And when I saw her, I really did like
her. She looked- I said, "She
looked real good," and everything.
KOTLOWITZ: [on camera] Did he ask you if he could kiss you or-
SURREL: I kissed him.
KOTLOWITZ: You kissed him?
KOTLOWITZ: Because you thought he might not-
SURREL: No. Yeah. You know. I thought he probably won't kiss me, so
I kissed him.
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
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!
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.
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
KOTLOWITZ: [on camera] When you were young, did you dream
about getting married?
SURREL: No. I thought about just being a single person, have no kids,
you know, nothing.
KOTLOWITZ: So you didn't dream about weddings or-
SURREL: I didn't dream it, no, because
everybody in my family was single, raising their kids.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
KOTLOWITZ: In fact, Ashaki has begun thinking that
maybe she and Steven should wait to get married.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Oklahoma's PREP is a 12-hour
curriculum. Here 13 women and 1
man learn how to communicate better with a spouse.
KOTLOWITZ: Johnni is trying her best to reconcile
the hopeful message she gets in class with what she told a court about her last
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."
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.
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.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: But the administration is holding its
ground and is encouraging trial efforts like Oklahoma's.
in Johnni's PREP class, I wondered whether role-playing exercises like this
would have any lasting impact.
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.
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.
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 PARTICIPANT: Nothing, at this point.
KOTLOWITZ: For Governor Keating, one of the
toughest issues the program has to address is the widespread acceptance of
having children out of wedlock.
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.
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.
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
KOTLOWITZ: Along with medical care, Dr. Hampton
dispenses marital advice.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Some think Dr. Hampton's approach has
more potential than any government program.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Many in the community would agree.
camera): How many of you are
[voice-over] I sat down with a group of grandmothers
to talk about the government's efforts.
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
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.
KOTLOWITZ: [voice-over] This is the heart of the debate: Is it
culture or economics or a bit of both?
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.
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.
KOTLOWITZ: Ashaki's wedding plans have taken
another turn. Steven was arrested
for selling drugs and sentenced to three months in boot camp.
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.
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
KOTLOWITZ: Ashaki's ring is no longer in its box
on the television. Her monthly
check spent, she needed money.
camera] So how much did you get when you pawned
HANKERSON: Nothing much. Nothing much. Thirty dollars.
KOTLOWITZ: And what were you able to buy with
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Esperdell, this is all about duty and obligation.
PASTOR: Do you, sir, take this woman to be your lawful wife?
McGEE: It's a happy day for me, and I pray it
be the beginning of happy days for them.
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.
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?
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."
Kotlowitz's thoughts about this story]
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
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
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.
how best to make marriage work?
ASHAKI HANKERSON: I got my ring. Baby, go back on that finger! Oh! Oh, great. That
KOTLOWITZ: Marriage, one historian has suggested,
is both society's bedrock and its fault line.
and DIRECTED BY
Loeterman and Alex Kotlowitz
by Tammy Wynette
of Epic Records
for the Study of Popular Television, Syracuse University
of Prevention Fund, Chicago, IL
Focus, Chicago, IL
Frontline coproduction with Ben Loeterman Productions Inc.
WGBH EDUCATIONAL FOUNDATION
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
is a production of WGBH Boston, which is solely responsible for
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