Let's Get Married (home page)
are they right?

readings & links
Here's a guide to some of the best sources to explore on the debate over family changes and trends. Some groups represented here attribute much of the decline in marriage to economic factors -- jobs and the economy -- while others point to cultural changes in marriage and family life. FRONTLINE's report "Let's Get Married" shows that new research is persuading many -- on both sides of this debate -- that, in fact, cultural and economic factors intertwine. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead tells FRONTLINE, "The causal arrows point in both directions, so that some of the economic factors have cultural consequences, and the cultural factors have economic consequences for children and for families."

Marriage, Poverty and Public Policy
Encourage couples with children to marry in order to reduce their risk of poverty? It's not quite that simple, according to this report done by researchers associated with the Council on Contemporary Families. Their analysis highlights why marriage alone, given the complex realities of poverty, can't solve the problems of children in poor families. Their report debunks "the myth that any two-parent family is better than one" and argues that the link between single parenthood and poverty is not inevitable if a sufficient long-term support system is available. The CCF Web site offers many articles, links, and statistics on the changes and diversities in America's families and how social and economic policies can help them.

Smart Marriages
Smart Marriages is a major coalition of groups supporting the modern marriage movement and actively involved in marriage, family, and couple education in the U.S. Its Web site collects scores of articles, tips and information -- everything from advice on stepfamilies to tips on relationships, from the link between marriage and health to government initiatives to strengthen marriage. For example, "Love Lessons from the Smart Marriages Conference" offers "Daily Temperature Readings" for communicating better with your spouse. The title of the article "How Therapists Threaten Marriages" generally speaks for itself. The author's critique focuses on those therapists who lack good skills in helping couples and those who have a biased philosophical view of marriage, seeing it as a means to personal fulfillment, and divorce as a "strictly private, self-interested choice with no important stakeholders other than the individual adult client." He offers an overview of marital therapy since the 1930s and some pointers on how to choose a marriage/family counselor. "No Joy in Splitsville" offers an overview of how the Smart Marriages coalition was founded in Washington D.C. in May 1997, and who was there.

[The above section was updated 3/28/07]

Can the Government Prevent Divorce? (1997)
Francine Russo, who writes frequently on human behavior and law, is the author of this 1997 article looking at the field of marital research and education and the debate over what marriage-strengthening programs actually work. Her article highlights presentations at the very first Smart Marriages Conference (see above link). It also looks at the debate over the proper role of government in these programs. [The Atlantic Monthly, October 1997]

Why We Don't Marry
In the debate over whether the decline in married two-parent families is a result of economic or cultural factors, well-known political scientist James Q. Wilson emphasizes culture. He points to the changes that developed during the Enlightenment, particularly an emphasis on the importance of individualism. "I take great pride in the vast expansion in human freedom that the Enlightenment conferred on so many people," he writes, "but I also know that the Enlightenment spent little time worrying about those cultural habits that make freedom meaningful and constructive. The family was one of those." [City Journal, Winter 2002]

What About Black Fathers?
Acknowledging mounting evidence that kids are better off growing up in married two-parent families, economist Ronald B. Mincy points to the challenges this raises for the black community, where there has been a substantial retreat from marriage over the decades. Although he points out some important concerns in the Bush administration's emphasis on promoting marriage, Mincy also calls for a "private, searching dialogue" within the black community about how to reach out and care for all its children, no matter their family circumstances. [The American Prospect, April 8, 2002]

The Evolution of the Marriage Debate: Two Key Readings

+ The Negro Family: The Case for National Action (1965)
Thirty seven years ago this report by then-Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan caused a firestorm of controversy. Noting that one-third of black children were growing up with a single parent (today it's one third of all American children), his 1965 report stated that this was perpetuating "a cycle of poverty and disadvantage." Moynihan's findings were viewed as a criticism of black families and scholars say it caused an historic shift -- liberals abandoned their voice in the debates over African-American families and for years left policy recommendations on this issue to conservatives.

+ Dan Quayle Was Right (1993)
This famous essay by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead defended Vice President Dan Quayle after he had criticized prime time tv in 1992 for having the character Murphy Brown become an out-of-wedlock mom. Liberals dismissed Whitehead's article, accusing her of pushing the conservatives' agenda. But her article would have an effect in the liberal camp. [The Atlantic Monthly, April 1993]

The Alternatives to Marriage Project
The Alternatives to Marriage Project was organized to advocate for "equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage." Its large, easy-to-navigate Web site contains interesting material supporting its perspective, including a link to the transcript of a debate between project co-founder Dorian Solot and U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Wade Horn; "Let Them Eat Wedding Rings," a critique of the marriage promotion strategy in the new welfare reform bill; a collection of "Fun Facts" about unmarried couples; and a library of articles on cohabitation and "unmarried bliss."

Center for Law and Social Policy: Couples & Marriage Policy
The Center for Law and Social Policy is a nonprofit organization seeking to promote "a progressive agenda in family policy." Among its recent publications on the marriage issue are "Spending Too Much, Accomplishing Too Little," on the new welfare reform bill emphasizing the promotion of marriage; "Marriage and Government: Strange Bedfellows?," a brief exploring what legitimate role the government might have in promoting marriage and laying out objections to government intervention; and "Is Teen Marriage a Solution?" (Note: all articles are in PDF format.)

Center for Law and Social Policy: Couples & Marriage Policy
The April 8, 2002 issue of The American Prospect, a mainstream liberal magazine, was devoted to "The Politics of Family." This companion Web site republishes many of the articles from that issue and offers Web exclusive features, including a debate between James Q. Wilson and Janet C. Gornick on whether liberals and conservatives might finally reach some kind of consensus on the marriage issue.

Fragile Families, Welfare Reform and Marriage
This December 2001 policy brief from The Brookings Institution, authored by Sara McLanahan, Irwin Garfinkel, and Ronald B. Mincy, outlines the social science evidence that both children and adults do benefit from marriage. This brief goes on to assess "marriage" and "mariageability" strategies and discusses policies to promote both. Most of the analysis is based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which has been following new, mostly unwed parents and their children over a four-year period.

Studies and Research Resources

The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative
Oklahoma was one of the first states to use state funds to finance a public/private $10 million initiative to reduce divorce rates and strengthen marriage. One goal of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI) is to reduce the state's divorce rate by one-third by 2010. Included on the OMI's Web site are the results of a state-wide survey on its citizens' attitudes toward marriage and divorce, as well as information on faith-based partnerships and secular marriage education workshops used to promote the initiative.

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey
The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a joint project of Princeton University and Columbia University, is following new, mostly unwed parents and their children over a four-year period. The study is designed to address non-marital childbearing, welfare reform, and the role of fathers in child wellbeing. The project's Web site contains periodically released summaries of recent research findings and policy implications, as well as working papers written by the project's investigators and researchers.

Children and Families
The National Institute for Social Science Information, in collaboration with the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, has published a digital library of research on issues involving children and families. Topics include: "Families and Children: Overviews"; "Children and Fathers"; "Making it Safe to Adulthood"; "Family Income and Family Structure"; and more.

National Marriage Project
The National Marriage Project at Rutgers University is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian project with the goal of strengthening marriage through research and analysis to inform public policy. One part of the project, the "Next Generation Program," is designed "to investigate and report on the attitudes and behavior of young adults toward dating, cohabitation, marriage and parenthood." Its publications page includes the recently released reports "The State of Our Unions: 2002" (subtitled "Why Men Won't Commit: Exploring Young Men's Attitudes about Sex, Dating and Marriage") and "Should We Live Together? What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage: A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research."

Institute for American Values
The Institute for American Values is a nonpartisan think tank "devoted to contributing intellectually to the renewal of marriage and family life and the sources of competence, character, and citizenship." Its Web site contains findings from reports including "Does Divorce Make People Happy?"; "Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-One Conclusions From the Social Sciences"; "Marriage and Public Policy: What Can Government Do?"; and "Hooking Up, Hanging Out and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Mating and Dating Today." It also maintains a blog (Web log) by family scholars.

The Heritage Foundation: Family Research
The Heritage Foundation is a think tank founded to "formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense." Policy papers and commentary on family issues include: "The Effects of Marriage and Maternal Education in Reducing Child Poverty"; and "Restoring a Culture of Marriage: Good News for Policymakers From the Fragile Families Survey."

home + introduction + are they right? + interviews + join the discussion
video excerpt + readings & links + quiz + quotes & quips + correspondent's chat
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE home + wgbh + pbs home

photo illustration copyright © 2002 photodisc all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation