SAUL GONZALEZ, correspondent: Every year, more than two million couples marry in the United States.
Conversation at wedding expo: When is your wedding? August 25th. Oh, you want to sign up here? Sure.
GONZALEZ: And some of those soon to be brides and grooms were here at this southern California wedding expo. As they plan their big day, it’s easy to find people ready to talk about what it takes to keep a relationship strong.
JESSICA VARGAS: I think we definitely are working every day on our relationship, making sure that that stays steady, and then we also have our personal goals that we want.….
RAYMOND GERST: We already went through the tuxedo rentals. We needed that…
GONZALEZ: Raymond Gerst and Jessica Vargas recently became engaged.
GERST: Communication, flat out. We are slowly evolving into having better communication between each other.
VARGAS: I know who he is. I know his flaws, I know the things that annoy me, but at the end of the day…
GERST: As do I…
VARGAS: …I have him, and I know he will be there for me, and as long as that communication stays good I think we’ll do all right.
GERST: As do I.
GONZALEZ: However, statistics show that just over 50 percent of first marriages in the US end in divorce. Couples whose relationships do sour, though, have gotten help from a powerful ally in recent years—the United States government. Starting with a Bush administration initiative in 2006 called the Healthy Marriage Initiative, Washington spent over half a billion dollars bankrolling various marriage education and healthy relationship programs across the country, many run by churches and religious groups.
DENNIS STOICA: We believe that being successful in marriage, it’s primarily a skills-based function, and what we provide is the skills to allow those people to be successful.
GONZALEZ: Dennis Stoica is the president of the California Healthy Marriages Coalition. It’s a nonprofit group that received over $12 million from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Most of the federal dollars Stoica’s group receives in turn goes to marriage education groups run by mostly Christian churches and religious groups, such as the Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino County, which held this marriage forum. It now gets more than 50 percent of its marriage education funds from the federal government.
STOICA: And it makes sense that the church would be interested in this. I mean, if you think about it, no matter what religion somebody belongs to or you’re affiliated with, all religions that I am aware of think that marriage should be a holy institute, so it is a strong alignment of values, yes.
GONZALEZ: The material used in government-funded marriage education programs mostly deals with communication problems and conflict management between spouses, like this scenario in a video produced by a federally funded group in Alabama.
Video excerpt: Robert! You didn’t even start dinner. I asked you two things and you promised two things: clothes and dinner. All you had to do was turn on the oven! I left you a note right on the refrigerator and I know you saw it because I see what’s in your hand. Hey! ….Whew! You can see where this conversation is headed. Robert and Tanya are both tired and stressed. He made some promises he didn’t keep, and she is coming on pretty strong…
GONZALEZ: Fighting poverty is primarily why the federal government is funding marriage education, the argument being that couples that stay together, especially in low-income minority communities, are more stable and less likely to seek government assistance.
Although few question the benefits of marriage, there are critics of Uncle Sam’s big role in marriage education.
PROFESSOR SHARON HAYS: Do you have the government telling you what kind of relationships you’ll establish?
GONZALEZ: Sharon Hays is a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and an expert on families and government policy.
Man speaking at marriage forum: Would any of you care to share any of your joys or struggles in marriage?
GONZALEZ: She worries about federal money going to Christian religious groups that might criticize gay couples or couples who choose not to marry.
(speaking to Sharon Hays): If marriage is generally a good thing for society, it’s a good thing for people to get married, why shouldn’t government be involved in that?
HAYS: It is implicitly saying there is only one road. There is only one correct pathway, and it is the marriage pathway. Always when I look at all these materials on marriage promotion efforts, I worry that there is an underlying moral agenda here, that it’s actually not a story about ending poverty, but a story about morality—that it is the morally correct thing to be married. Unmarried people are morally incorrect. This is of course, right, the biggest concern relative to having government in the marriage promotion business.
STOICA: If people want to get married, we want them to be successful. But if people don’t want to get married, we don’t want them to get married, because if you don’t want to be married you’re not going to stay married.
Woman speaking at marriage forum: It is a commitment as one…
GONZALEZ: And Stoica says the groups he funds steer clear of proselytizing. However, he is a devout Catholic who sees his marriage work as a vocation.
STOICA: I believe this is God’s calling for me, is that I do believe that marriage is designed by God and that he wants people to be happily married, and that by helping people be happily married I’m fulfilling upon God’s calling for my life.
GONZALEZ: And you feel you can save people’s marriages without necessarily imposing your own religious standards on them?
STOICA: Absolutely. Our religious standards—they just don’t show up in the classroom. They just don’t show up.
GONZALEZ: Few independent studies have been done to assess the quality and effectiveness of federally funded marriage education. The federal government commissioned one report released last year by the social policy study group Mathematica. It studied 5,000 low-income couples in 8 states participating in Building Strong Families [BSF], part of the government’s marriage and relationship education effort. It found that “when results are averaged across all programs, BSF did not make couples more likely to stay together or get married. In addition, it did not improve couples’ relationship quality.”
HAYS: It is quite surprising, right. Here is this federal program that has been well funded for five years, and the research on it has shown that it is not effective. It is not effective in doing what one might call the simplest thing, which is to get people to get married.
GONZALEZ: Hays believes the money spent on marriage education should instead go to other programs, such as job training for the poor. However, Stoica stands behind both marriage and marriage education as ways to make millions of people’s lives better.
STOICA: I believe, frankly, that marriage education is the best anti-poverty program that the federal government has ever invested in, because of its preventative nature. Over 90 percent of Americans end up getting married. Over 95 percent of Americans say they want to get married. All we are doing is giving people increased probability of having what they want, which is a happy marriage.
GONZALEZ: The Obama administration is expected to continue supporting marriage education programs. It’s budgeted $150 million for the next fiscal year.
GERST: I’m thinking about having something like this on the tables …
VARGAS: But, see, then that totally changes my color scheme again.
GONZALEZ: At the marriage expo, the focus is preparing for the first few hours of matrimony and not the joys and challenges that will come later.
For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Saul Gonzalez in Los Angeles.