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interview: wade horn

Back up and just tell me why this interest now in marriage. What's the importance of marriage?

I think there's been an accumulation of empirical evidence over the last decade or so which has substantiated two things: Number one, that children who grow up without an involved, committed, responsible father in their lives are at some disadvantage in a variety of different areas; and two, that the most likely way to keep a father involved in healthy ways with their children is through this institution called marriage.

I don't believe that government's going to be the solution on the marriage issue, by itself. I think that government, however, can provide some impetus for innovative work.

So we've seen a lot of new studies which have looked at the impact of marriage and non-marriage on the well-being of children, and also on fathers and their ability or their propensity to be involved with their kids. I think the conclusion that people are drawing, increasingly across ideological divides or different philosophical perspectives, is that marriage does matter. Now the question is what are we going to do about it?

We've been spending some time in the inner city in Chicago. How does marriage matter for a community like the ones we've been spending time in?

Marriage matters to communities, because we know that those communities that have higher rates of marriage, compared to those with low rates of marriage, are less likely to have certain social difficulties, such as poverty, welfare dependency, crime. One of the things that the empirical literature has documented is that when marriage starts to disappear in communities, we start to have higher rates of certain kinds of social difficulties.

So you see marriage as a direct consequence of some of the decay you see in these neighborhoods?

Marriage is both a driver of social difficulties, and also a consequence of social difficulties. For example, we know that single-parent households are more likely to be poor than two-parent households. To some extent, that's a function of the fact that, when men in particular get married, we see a relatively reliable income boost. They're more reliable workers after marriage than before marriage. They tend to get more raises. They tend to get increases in terms of their earnings.

But at the same time, we also know that economic challenges and difficulties are very stressful on marriages. So we also should not be surprised that, in communities that are full with economic challenges, we're going to see less marriage, because economic and financial difficulties causes stress for marriages.

So it's not my perspective that if we just get everybody married, everything's going to be right with the world. But it seems to me that it's undeniable that if you care about the well-being of children in particular, that children who grow up in a two-parent healthy married household do better than kids who grow up in a two-parent unhealthy married household. So what we're trying to accomplish is increase the proportion of kids in married households, where that marriage is a healthy one.


photo of horn

Horn is the assistant secretary for the Administration of Children, Youth and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service. He argues that although government should not be involved in a couple's intimate decision to get married, it can play a role in strengthening marriage by promoting skills such as conflict-resolution or problem-solving. He compares marriage education to parenting education and tells FRONTLINE, "We have this sort of very expansive view of where it is that government should be or ought to be involved in the family, except for this one area called marriage." This interview was conducted on July 12, 2002.

When I heard you speak about a year ago, I remember in your talk you said, " I want to talk to you about the M-word." ... Do you sense that there's not necessarily a marriage-friendly culture out there?

There are really two cultures. There is a sort of everyday, kitchen-table culture. Marriage is not a taboo word in the everyday kitchen-table culture. About 90 percent of Americans are either married, have been married, or will be married. Marriage is a very widely shared ideal across all socioeconomic groups, all ethnic and racial groups. So around the kitchen table, marriage is not a taboo word.

But there's another culture, and it's the culture of the elites. The culture of the elites is one that does find it difficult to use the word "marriage." So we have to break into that culture, and make it easier or more acceptable to use the word "marriage" if in fact what we're going to do is support the kinds of decisions and ideals that are widely shared around the kitchen table.

When you say "the elites," do you mean the liberal elites? I'm not sure what--

[No], when I use "cultural elites," I'm not drawing a distinction between liberal or conservatives. Certainly I'm not talking about party affiliation. I think there is as much hesitancy on the Republican side of the aisle, at least historically, as on the Democratic side of the aisle to talk about the issue of marriage. And obviously, within the conservative realm, there are libertarians who think this is a ridiculous idea, that government should be involved in marriage.

I just think that there's this conversation that happens around the kitchen table that is different than the conversation that happens around hearing tables here in Washington, D.C., and testimony before Congress or around think tank tables or in academia, where marriage is a much more of a forbidden word.

But family and marriage has always been a tough thing to talk about, particularly in poor urban communities. I go back to the Moynihan Report and the reaction that he got when he talked about the crumbling of the African-American family back then.

... I think they face unique challenges in low-income communities around the issue of marriage. Certainly, economics provides a greater challenge when it comes to forming and sustaining healthy marriages. I think we have a welfare system which actively punishes the decision to get married. So there's not a lot of great surprise to me that we have less marriage within welfare-dependent communities in particular.

Again, around the kitchen tables, I'm not sure that there's much of a different conversation in low-income communities and more affluent communities, except for a greater recognition of the punishments that are inherent, unfortunately, in some government policies, particularly around welfare.

One of the things that we heard when we spent time in inner cities, just as you said, is, "Yes, we value marriage as something we strive for. But we don't want government getting involved in this. Just stay out of our lives. Stay out of our intimate lives."

If in fact government were to get involved with the intimate decision about whether or not to get married, I agree. I think the government ought not to get involved with the intimate decision of a couple whether or not they're going to get married. If you posed the question to low-income couples, to middle-class couples, to anybody, to myself, "Do you think government should get involved in the decision about whether someone should get married?" the answer should be a resounding no.

On the other hand, if you asked the question differently and you say, "Gee, do you think it'll be OK for government to provide financial supports for those couples who are either already married or want to get married, so they can access services, so they can be better problem solvers, have better negotiation skills, be better listeners, have the kinds of skills that we know are helpful for couples to form and sustain healthy marriages?" I think you'd get a different answer. Then I don't think you get the answer that says, "Gee, stay out of our lives. We don't want you help us with education around relationship skills." I think you get an answer that says, "Gee, that sounds reasonable to us."

Let me ask a couple questions on that point. One is that, when I hear this notion about relationship skills, I can't help but feel that it sounds so Oprah-esque, and I'm thinking, "What's government doing here?"

Well, I think government should be involved in marriage education work, because we know that marriage education can help couples have healthy marriages, and thereby impact in a positive way the well-being of children.

What's interesting to me about this debate is we don't have the same level of reluctance when it comes to parenting education. I can argue that parenting is a very intimate relationship between a mother or a father and their children, and why should government be involved in helping parents, through parent education, be good parents? I mean, that's an intimate relationship; it's within the family; government should stay out of it.

Yet we don't have the same debate about that, because what we believe is that you aren't born good or bad parents; you develop skills about parenting, and that you can learn those skills. So government, except in rare cases, doesn't mandate parenting education, but does offer it as a voluntary service. And people say, "That seems reasonable to us."

In the marriage arena, it's a little bit different, because people are less clear about whether or not marriages are the result of skills that we learn, or whether it's due to magic. We wouldn't say, "Oh, gee, that guy, he's a good father because he was born that way, and it's just kind of magical why he's a good father." [But] when it comes to marriage, we tend to say things like, "Who knows what makes a good marriage?" and "It's just kind of magical," and "There's nothing we can teach that can help this couple form or sustain a healthy marriages."

Well, the fact of the matter is there are things we can teach. The new research shows that the frequency of conflict between the spouses in healthy marriages versus unhealthy marriages is not different. What is different is the way they manage that conflict. Since we can teach conflict resolution skills, problem-solving skills, listening skills, why not provide it as a voluntary service? If a couple doesn't want it, they don't have to go to it. Just like in most cases, if a couple doesn't want to access parenting education, don't go to it.

So when you start to say, "Gee, do you think it would be OK for government to offer on a voluntary basis education that will allow couples to develop the kinds of relationship skills, which we know, through research, can help couples have healthy marriages?" that's a very different question than when you ask the question, "Gee, do you think government should get involved in telling you whether you get married or not?"

I think some of your critics would argue that you're trying to somehow change the culture. ... I heard you mention the other day that this is not some new chapter in the culture wars. But if it's just a matter of changing the culture and there's no opposition to that, it seems to me kind of an easy proposition. I guess I'm wondering whether there isn't some tension here.

I believe it should be an easy proposition. I'm stunned by the criticism of the president's proposal, because the president's proposal is one which says this ought to be education-based. It ought to be voluntary. It ought not to be coercive. It ought to be only about those couples who have said they want to get married or already are married, and want to access certain kinds of services.

I think this is an issue that ought to be able to generate support from a very broad base of different ideological or philosophical perspectives.

But there are going to be differences. For example, [some critics] believe in abstinence and in chasteness before marriage. I can understand why that would be somewhat controversial out there.

I also am a strong proponent of the idea that one should be abstinent until marriage. On the other hand, I would be a very strong opponent to the idea that you would say to somebody, "When it comes to delivery of premarital education, unless you're abstinent, you need not apply." I think it's possible for us to do several things at the same time. Sure, we can have a debate about whether or not abstinence is the best choice for young people or not. But that should not drive, it seems to me, making available to young couples things like premarital education programs. ...

Tell me a little bit about how you think the culture at the moment values marriage. I know you've talked about the sort of kitchen-table culture. What I'm talking about is more of the sort of zeitgeist, what you're up against in trying to push marriage as this acceptable institution or valued institution.

... I know a lot of parents, including divorced parents and unwed parents, who say what they would like for their own children is [that] when they grow up, they find someone that they can form a healthy marriage that's sustainable over time. At that level, this is not a taboo subject. But at the level of sort of the mass media, public policy, we've had a silence about it, which I don't think has been very helpful. The first thing we have to do is just break that silence and be willing to bring up the word.

When you first began to bring it up, what were some of the responses you heard about it?

This is an issue that seems to make sense to people. Yet at the same time, they are a little wary about what government's proper role is in this institution called marriage. And they ought to be wary about it. I am wary about it. It seems to me we ought not to overstep the legitimate role of government in intimate family life.

So I don't think it's a good idea, for example, to implement policies that would provide such strong incentives for marriage that couples who are unprepared for marriage or really haven't thought through this choice, are so enticed by it that they choose it, thereby perhaps forming a very bad marriage, which is going to cause all sorts of bad consequences down the road. Government ought not to be involved in the choice point.

But it seems to me that once the choice has been made, it's not illegitimate for government to say, "We now will support you in trying to move towards what it is you've chosen for yourself, the ideal that you've said you want for yourself." Because again, most people don't walk down the aisle saying, "I think I'll be married for, oh, maybe three or four years, and then I'll try it again."

You say, "Once people made the choice," but in the communities we've been spending time with, marriage has virtually disappeared. Even though it's talked about, it's still the unusual couple that you find where marriage is where they've actually really, definitely decided to enter that. So in communities like that, how do you go about trying to promote, encourage, or push this notion of marriage?

The good news is that the ideal of marriage still exists. I don't know of any community in America [where you] can go into, where they go, "Huh? What's a marriage? That's a bad idea. It's a terrible thing." That's the good news -- the ideal of marriage, which still exists.

Why then are marriage rates low in certain communities? I think there're some reasonable explanations for that. Number one, we know that economic circumstances can be a very strong inhibitor towards the decision to get married. So we ought to do something about the economic circumstances of low-income communities.

Number two, we have a welfare system that actively punishes the decision to get married. If you cohabit, you don't lose anything. You marry, you lose lots of stuff. So it seems not unreasonable that people are making the choice not to get married, to cohabit instead, because otherwise they're faced with these huge penalties within the welfare system.

But in addition to that, there's this silence in our social services network that interacts with these communities, in which they won't even bring up the word. So if a couple says they're thinking about getting married, there are no services for them. It's the very rare social worker or case worker in a low-income community that would be able to respond even to a couple that said, "Gee, you know, we're thinking about getting married," other than say, "Gee, that's nice."

It seems to me that a piece of what we need to do is to support those couples in concrete ways once the decision is made; not just with rhetoric, but with real programs, programs like premarital education, like marriage enrichment, like marriage counseling for those who are married and maybe have these difficulties in the marriage. That, it seems to me, is not illegitimate role for government to play.

So you see a cultural battle ahead for you in this, in trying to--

I think we can create a cultural battle if we want one. And if we create a cultural battle around the issue of marriage, everybody loses; most of all, the kids. The real trick is not to engage a cultural battle around the issue of marriage. The real trick is to try to generate a broad base of support across ideological and political lines, so that we can move forward with an agenda that is helpful -- not just to the couples who say they want to get married or are married, but to the children that either now reside in those families or will in the future.

For me, family has always been such a tough -- it is this incredibly important institution, and yet, boy, it's tough to figure out how and when you intervene, and sort of how and where you can push. I'm always reminded that Moynihan, who I have a lot of respect for, said at one point, "If you expect a government program to change families, you know more about government than I do." And his thinking, I think, is that maybe it's not an arena that government really can have much influence.

... I think that Moynihan sells government too short. Can government be the solution for everything that ails the American family? Of course not. I don't believe that government's going to be the solution on the marriage issue, by itself. I think that government, however, can provide some impetus for innovative work. It can provide some evaluations to help us build our knowledge base. It can be helpful in sending signals to the broader culture about what it is that we as a people value and want to encourage.

But in the end, I do believe marriage is much more impacted by cultural issues than by government. Those cultural forces say things like, "Cohabitation is the same as marriage. It doesn't matter whether you father or bear children before you get married." Those cultural messages have much more profound effect on this institution called marriage than government ever will. ...

I know that Oklahoma's been kind of a flagship for you, kind of a model. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about that.

Oklahoma has been a leader in the use of the current flexibility under the welfare reform legislation, to focus on helping couples build strong and healthy marriages. To that extent, it is an important example to point to for other states to take a look at, in terms of what they'd like to do. But we don't believe that we know enough yet to say, "This is the one way to do it."

Our proposal is to say, "Let's give some money to spur innovation." What Oklahoma does may look very different than what Michigan may want to do, or what Iowa may want to do, or what New York State may want to do. We're trying to avoid saying, "This is the one place that you should go to look at a marriage promotion program, and we should all be doing it exactly this way." We think our level of knowledge is not there yet. We're trying to do evaluate different approaches and see what works best. ...

How do you try to change a culture? You raised that question this morning in your opening speech. You said the conversation has now turned not to "whether" but to "how." How do you?

... 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. Here, I think it's important for us to keep in mind what government should not do. It should not coerce anyone to get married. It shouldn't run a federal dating service to get people hooked up and married. It ought not to trap anyone, either intentionally or unintentionally, in abusive relationships. It ought not to equate a marriage promotion program with the withdrawal of supports from single-parent households.

But what it can do is provide access for those couples who have chosen marriage for themselves to a system of services where they can develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages.

But it sounds like you're trying to do more than that. It sounds like in some ways, just in having this [public] conversation, you're trying to sort of again influence the culture that you talked about.

Certainly, when government gets into any area, it sends this signal about the importance of that. It also sends the signal if it doesn't get into a particular topic. So by government saying, "We think we want to get into some innovative programs around support of healthy marriages," it's sending a signal to the broader culture that healthy marriages matter. It doesn't mean that government is saying it's the only solution for it. But it is saying that this is an important topic for us to pay attention to, as a culture. ...

This sounds a little bit like government as psychologist.

I'm not sure I agree with that. Culture and government are not the same thing. They overlap and they influence each other, but they're not the same thing. When you have a conversation about the culture and the kind of cultural messages that are unhealthy for marriages, the implication should not be, "It's now government's responsibility to change the cultural messages." On the other hand, what government does can have influence on cultural messages; sends its own messages to the culture, for example. They interact and they overlap to some extent, but they're not the same thing. ...

No. But I guess I was thinking of government as psychologist -- this notion of skills and counseling and sort of intervening in that sort of messiness of love and happiness. I guess it seems like an odd place for government to be.

Is it an odd place for government to be, to teach parents parenting skills so that they can parent their children well? Is it an odd place for government to be to teach parents the importance of early literacy experiences for kids, things like reading to your children when they're younger? Is it an odd place for government to be to teach adult literacy to parents so that they can read to their kids?

We have this sort of very expansive view of where it is that government should be or ought to be involved in the family, except for this one area called marriage. We wall that off, and we say, "That's the one place we're not going to go. We're not going to help couples build skills to have good marriages, even though we're going to help parents to develop parenting skills to be better parents. We're not going to give hope to troubled marriages by providing low-income couples the wherewithal that more affluent couples have in terms of accessing marriage counseling. But we're certainly going to provide all sorts of interventions in terms of educational interventions for adults as well as kids."

Why this dividing line that says marriage is the one topic that we're going to make off limits? That's part of the problem. Part of the problem is we have had that dividing line. Government has said in the past, "We're not going to go there. We're not going to touch that." There're certainly ways that I would think would be very destructive going in that direction. But I do think there's reasonable ways -- so long as they're voluntary, so long as they're skill-based, so long as they're education-oriented -- where we can help couples attain what they say they want for themselves: a healthy and sustainable marriage. ...

Do you look at an organization like Marriage Savers, for example, as something that we can learn from?

There's also work that's being done within the faith-based community. I think that there certainly is a great role for faith-based organizations to play in helping couples for and sustain healthy marriages. Most Americans get married in a place of worship. It seems to me that not unreasonable that places of worship therefore can be a partner in helping couples form and sustain healthy marriages.

But government's ability to work directly with faith-based organizations, if the faith-based organization is going to use the delivery of those services to proselytize, is quite limited, and ought to be. There are appropriate places for faith-based organizations to play in those, in places where, at least in partnership with the federal government, you can't go. But certainly it is helpful to some couples to have a more transcendent understanding of the institution of marriage than simply to see it as a social contract. It doesn't mean you have to have that transcendent meaning or understanding. But certainly it's something that can be helpful that places of worship, faith-based organizations, can provide to couples.

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