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CORRESPONDENT'S NOTEBOOK: Are the Conservatives Right? By Alex Kotlowitz
For decades, liberals have run away from the issue of marriage and single parenthood, afraid of stigmatizing unwed mothers and their children. Now some are wondering whether the conservative marriage movement, embraced by President Bush, is on to something. Can government help poor communities by promoting marriage? The answer, writes FRONTLINE correspondent Alex Kotlowitz, is not simple. But it's a question he can no longer ignore.

Nov. 14, 2002

There's not a single bridal shop on Chicago's West Side. Indeed, as an institution, marriage has virtually disappeared from inner-city communities. In the 10 years since I wrote There Are No Children Here, which follows two young boys growing up in public housing on the West Side, I've been to half a dozen funerals in the neighborhood and only one wedding -- and that marriage has since ended in divorce. In some impoverished urban communities, as few as one out of 10 children are born to married parents.

For the families I got to know in Chicago while writing that book, marriage just didn't seem relevant. So many of the men were unemployed. The women were doing yeoman jobs while raising children. Their immediate concerns -- like paying the rent or keeping their kids safe from the street violence or pushing the neighborhood school to do better by their children -- seemed much weightier and more urgent than getting married. One friend who got out of the projects has moved to the surburbs with her partner and their seven children. She now works at a bank. Mother and father have been together for 19 years, and only now -- finally feeling stable -- has marriage entered the equation.

A year ago, I got a call from a producer at FRONTLINE who asked if I'd be interested in working on a documentary about a fledgling marriage movement that has begun to influence public policy. My response was, "Why me?" I'm not exactly an expert on marriage. His answer was simple: the Bush administration is pushing marriage as part of its welfare-reform strategy, the idea being that marriage can help lift people out of poverty.

With the Republicans' victory in the mid-term elections, it now seems likely that Congress will indeed set aside funding for programs that promote marriage among the poor. A liberal friend of mine who runs an extraordinary program for inner-city children in Chicago declared this marriage push "nuts." Admittedly, that was my instinctive reaction as well. But while reporting this story for FRONTLINE, I've come to realize that there's been a shift in the winds. Could it be that the conservatives are on to something?

·  ·  ·

As we set out to make the documentary, we decided we should first go to the places where the marriage movement has taken hold. So we traveled to Oklahoma, the one state that has a significant pro-marriage program in place.

A few years ago, Oklahoma's governor, Frank Keating, had been concerned about the state's sagging economy, so he went to some local economists for advice. It turned out that Oklahoma -- the buckle of the Bible Belt -- had the second-highest divorce rate in the nation, second only to Nevada's. Stem the tide of divorce, the economists told Keating, and the state's high poverty rate would decrease.

So Keating set aside $10 million, a modest amount of money, to teach welfare recipients relationship skills. I sat in on some of those classes, and found the training benign enough, if unproven. The lessons were mostly on communication and sexuality. It was like Dr. Phil writ large. The thought that these quickie lessons were going to somehow change people's lives seemed awfully optimistic. In one class in Duncan, a small town in southern Oklahoma, virtually all of the women were running from relationships (many of them abusive), and yet they sat through four days of lessons on how better to communcate with their spouse. (To the instructor's credit, she realized the irony of the situation, and so steered much of the conversation to improving their relationships with their children.)

In Edin, a conservative small town in the northern part of the state, we met a teen-aged couple. The girl, a junior in high school, was pregnant. She and her boyfriend had a contentious relationship, gushing over with teen-aged melodrama, and whenever we visited we were never certain whether they'd be together or whether they'd be sparring. The girl attended one of the state's relationship training sessions at her high school. Brenda, a state worker who goes into the schools to teach family and consumer sciences, was running the session, and it turned out that Brenda's daughter was best friends with the girl, so Brenda knew her well. Brenda wanted her to get married, and even tried -- unsuccessfully -- to talk with the boyfriend.

I watched all of this unfold with some uneasiness. It seemed to be a case of government playing cupid. In the end, I'm not sure it's any of our business whether this couple stays together, let alone marries. And while yes, two parents might be best for this child, it was unclear that this couple, given their differences, would last -- even with counseling.

From Oklahoma we traveled to Madison, Wisc., to hear Mike McManus, a pioneer of the marriage movement. McManus is essentially a marriage salesman. He goes from city to city, preaching to ministers and priests about the need to offer both pre-marital and marriage counseling. It's a fairly simple message: Let's take marriage more seriously. But listening to McManus made marriage feel like such a deliberate exercise. McManus has a questionnaire he uses to make sure that engaged couples are compatible. He's also given to moralizing, some of which can be alienating -- as when he suggests that the collapse of marriage "creates monsters" because it leads to a greater likelihood that children will drop out of school or get involved in delinquent activity. Not exactly language that will win people over. Indeed, many in this young marriage movement look to stigmatize single parenthood. This seems both wrongheaded and misguided, especially since single parents are the very constituency the movement is trying to reach.

We then visited Chattanooga, Tenn., where a local organization, First Things First, was sponsoring a public contest in which the prize was an all-expenses paid wedding, honeymoon included. Couples sent in photos and wrote essays, and local television viewers voted for the most deserving of them. There were strings attached, however. The couples had to abstain from premarital sex and participate in premarital counseling. The organization had a strong Christian underpinning, and, again, as with McManus, moralizing played a big role.

To be honest, at this point I wasn't sure we had much of a program. None of this seemed terribly relevant to the poor, especially the urban poor. Marriage isn't part of the inner-city landscape. What's more, can you imagine someone like McManus extolling marriage to single mothers there, telling them that if they don't get married they're going to "create monsters"? The conservative Christian tone gave the movement a sense of piety. There were strong judgments made about single mothers. It wasn't uncommon to hear references to "illegitimate children," a term that for a while, at least, had disappeared from the lexicon.

What, I asked myself, does the marriage movement have to offer people in inner-city communities?

·  ·  ·

Back in Chicago, one of the first things I did was to sit down with a group of grandmothers from a hardscrabble neighborhood on the city's South Side. I was surprised, in part, by how much they sounded like the Bible Belt conservatives I'd met, at least inasmuch as they were dismayed at the fact that their children were having children without getting married. They couldn't understand what had happened, why marriage had become such a rarity in their community. They argued that the local schools should give classes extolling the benefits of matrimony. They also talked about how the ministers in their churches often used their Sunday sermons to preach about marriage. But they had very different notions as to what answers were called for. They adamantly opposed the idea of government getting involved -- and suggested that what would help couples find their way to the altar was not to push them but rather to ease the strains in their lives. More daycare. Better schools. Jobs. Adequate housing.

Research would seem to support this. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a long-term survey of 5,000 low-income couples sponsored by a consortium of universities, has found that eight out of 10 couples surveyed planned to marry. "I was out in the field all of the time, interviewing low-income single mothers," Kathy Edin, the director of the study, told me. "And 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."

Still, although attitudes appear to be changing, there hasn't been a rush to the altar. In fact, Kathy Edin's survey has found that while most of the couples interviewed intend to wed, they never get there. They view marriage as the last step in life's progression, or as Edin says, "as icing on the cake." First, they want economic security. Remember my friend who grew up in public housing and with her partner of 19 years has raised seven children? She told me she's now considering marrying him. But there's one piece missing. "I really want everything in place," she tells me. "He has to have a job."

photo of alex

Alex Kotlowitz is the correspondent for FRONTLINE's "Let's Get Married." He is the author of the award-winning book There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (1991) and The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America's Dilemma (1998). A contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and public radio's This American Life, his articles have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly and The New Republic. He is currently a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University.

Related Links

+ Dan Quayle Was Right
This famous, and controversial, 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 Politics of Family
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.

The news here, though, is that marriage is in the air. Ten years ago, when an African-American minister on the West Side, who speaks of marriage "as a traumatized tradition," tried to talk about the institution from the pulpit, his congregation scoffed at his preaching. But this year his church co-sponsored a marriage celebration, and weekly marriage enrichment classes have been so popular that he's had to put some parishioners on waiting lists. Another minister -- a political progressive -- will baptize children of unwed parents, but only if the parents agree to come into his office to hear his rap on marriage. In inner-city Baltimore, Joe Jones, who runs one of the nation's premiere fatherhood programs, plans to introduce marriage classes. And the Nation of Islam, which organized the Million Man March, now touts matrimony, calling it "a social institution in need of restoration."

If marriage has reentered the zeitgeist of the urban poor, we thought, why not try to find some couples who were considering getting married? I was surprised how easy that was. We went to pre-natal clinics and to two prominent Chicago organizations, the Ounce of Prevention Fund and Family Focus, and met numerous couples who had a child together or were about to give birth. Virtually all talked about getting married. One story in particular, that of Ashaki Hankerson, revealed how the marriage movement understands the need out there -- and yet doesn't comprehend all the obstacles that lie in the way.

At Family Focus I was invited to sit in a class of single mothers. Afterwards, one of the young women, Ashaki, approached me. "Did you say you were a marriage counselor?" she asked. She was looking for some guidance. She was planning to marry the father of her last child (she had seven in all) that coming weekend at City Hall, and was having second thoughts about whether she was really ready to exchange vows. She wanted certain things to be in place. She wanted her boyfriend, Steven Thomas, to have a job. That was important to her, and it was understandable. She lived in an apartment which for weeks had no gas service, and so had to cook on a hot plate. She couldn't afford furniture, so her rooms were virtually bare. Moreover, she worried about Steven. An affable, smart young man, he had had trouble finding employment, and when things got tight at home he would sell drugs. He eventually got caught and was sentenced to three months in boot camp.

I so hope it works out for them, especially because Steven has become a stand-in-father to all of the children. They're crazy about him. He'd take them to the park. He'd take them to school. He'd help them with their homework. And he got them to love oldies music. In fact, they so abided him, he had the five oldest doing a dance routine to the Temptations' "My Girl." Steven just got out of boot camp this past weekend, and Ashaki told me they still have plans to wed.

·  ·  ·

Talking about marriage can land you on treacherous turf. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a young deputy in the Department of Labor, issued a report entitled "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." It suggested that the breakdown of the black family -- one-third of all black children at the time lived with only one parent -- was keeping African-Americans from finding their way into the middle class. Moynihan was pilloried by progressives, accused of blaming the victim, and in the ensuing decades liberals essentially abdicated the discussion about family to the conservatives. They've had a tough time finding their way back ever since. "We've been dragged into this [conversation] kicking and screaming," one liberal sociologist told me.

The conservatives overstate their case when they suggest that marriage will lift people out of poverty. It won't. Certainly not without first easing the economic strains in people's lives. "Two broke people is just broke," the head of a men's group in Chicago told me.

Early on in the filming, a woman who directs an organization that works with African-American families laughed when I told her what I was working on. Marriage, she said, is not a subject around here. It's just not relevant to the lives of her clients, she told me. But when I sat down with her a couple of months later, she apologized. She'd given it some thought. Marriage, she said, was clearly critical to her community.

"The question is: What can we do to help people get there?" she said. "And not assume that they don't care about it. People do care [about getting married]. But there are so many obstacles in the way."

In the end, as Ashaki and Steven's situation made so clear, it all comes down to the kids. Social scientists from both the right and left are finding that, all things being equal, two parents are best for children. Indeed, I've become convinced that marriage, this very private institution, has very public consequences. That much, at least, the conservatives have right. What's missing from the marriage movement, though, is an understanding of the forces bearing down on couples in poor neighborhoods who are struggling just to get by. Liberals have much to contribute to this conversation. In fact, their voices are critical -- both to counter the moralizing and to underscore the importance of strengthening families.

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