marriage equality: where do marriage promotion policies fit?

The debate over marriage equality for lesbians and gay men is once again taking shape to be a hot item in this election year. A number of events have put the issue in the spotlight. The Washington state legislature passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage, the legislature in Maryland followed suit, and Chris Christie vetoed a same-sex marriage bill in New Jersey. While voters in Maine will consider whether to legalize same-sex marriage, those in North Carolina and Minnesota will consider referendums this year on constitutional amendments to ban it. Soon, there will be a decision in the federal appeals court hearing on whether to uphold a lower court’s decision that a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

With the current patchwork of state laws—a few legalizing marriage for lesbians and gay men and a good number with constitutional bans—the climate is ripe to strike down DOMA. The Obama administration has taken a step in the right direction, announcing that the Justice Department would no longer support the Defense of Marriage Act in court. And more Americans are now likely to view the issue of marriage as one of equal rights (see the research of sociologists Robert Andersen and Tina Fetner for an explanation of the increasing tolerance of homosexuality in North America). Thus, contests over marriage equality have lost some of their heat, even as the issue continues to generate passion for one-man and one-woman marriage among socially conservative voters.

While marriage equality remains a topic of public debate, and marriage is illegal for lesbians and gay men in most states, more issues are at stake than generally acknowledged in the discussion. In fact, a number of recent laws and policies pose an additional challenge to end the types of discrimination based on legal marriage. These laws specify terms for a new direction in public policy to promote heterosexual marriage as a route out of poverty and off welfare.

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, also known as welfare reform) set the stage for this new policy direction by including provisions to promote heterosexual marriage. Unlike DOMA, which explicitly discriminates against lesbians and gay men by defining marriage to mean “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” marriage promotion policies make more universal claims about the superiority of marriage with an assumption of its fundamental heterosexuality. For example, according to PRWORA:

(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society. (2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children. (3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children.

The argument favoring heterosexual marriage and parenting as key elements of a successful society suggests the need to prioritize the institution in public policies by offering financial and social benefits to those who are married and to discourage parenting outside marriage. This philosophy fuels the growth of marriage promotion policies as a way to lift poor women out of poverty.

Marriage promotion policies have offered a variety of services, including “marriage education”—an approach to preventing marital problems based on the idea that couples can learn how to build and maintain successful marriages, public media campaigns to signal the importance of marriage to healthy families, and marriage incentives for poor couples. Many of these programs receive federal funds. For example, the 2005 welfare legislation set aside $500 million for marriage promotion programs. In addition, individual states, such as Oklahoma, have used portions of their welfare grants to fund statewide marriage initiatives.

In my book One Marriage under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America, I offer analysis of the social consequences of marriage promotion policies. Using the marriage initiative in Oklahoma as a case study, I uncover the kinds of discrimination that take place in state efforts to promote and strengthen heterosexual marriage. For example, the initiative spends welfare money to offer free marriage education workshops to the general public populated by couples who are not poor. These workshops thus redistribute welfare money away from poor women with children who are struggling to make ends meet. Furthermore, such workshops mirror the PRWORA law in teaching about marriage as fundamentally heterosexual.

Discussion of marriage equality in America must begin to tackle these broader laws and policies that often fall under the radar. It is fundamentally unjust to bar lesbians and gay men from marrying, and it is also fundamentally unjust to use public funds for initiatives motivated by the premise that marriage can be a solution to poverty for poor women who are judged as having made “bad” sexual choices. While poor and non-poor couples alike, as well as lesbian and gay couples, may benefit from voluntary workshops that teach skills for better communication and ways to de-escalate arguments, I hope that my book will contribute to discussions of the problems with policies that discriminate against heterosexual and non-heterosexual couples based on the assumed superiority of “one marriage.”

This post was first published on the NYU From the Square blog:

11 thoughts on “marriage equality: where do marriage promotion policies fit?”

  1. Welcome to the blog, Melanie. I cannot wait to read your book, but in the meanwhile, can you describe the content of these marriage workshops? How much variation within the idea of what a “good” marriage is allowed for?


    1. Tina, thank you for inviting me to post on Scatterplot! There are thousands of “marriage education” workshops taking place across the United States, and most revolve around the idea that couples can learn specific skills of communication and conflict resolution to help them stay together. While there is great variety in the curricula and types of workshops offered, most of these workshops would define good marriages as those that are committed, have less conflict, and less chance of divorce. The idea is that couples can learn skills to sustain a good marriage. Some of these workshops take place in Christian or other religious contexts where a good marriage might draw on biblical principles. Many of the programs do offer skills that are beneficial to couples, and there is research showing that those in the middle class have improved their relationships (middle-class couples have been the main consumers). As is often the case, what appears to be an admirable goal—to help couples to build better relationships and marriages—becomes much more complex and problematic when the state institutes it into policy. This is the case with marriage promotion policies.


  2. Welcome, Melanie, and thanks for a really interesting post. It almost seems like the arguments for marriage promotion and those against marriage equality are very similar: they rest on a defensive imagination of the social-control function of marriage. Particularly when divorce is a central part of the marriage narrative this seems like last-ditch reaction instead of thoughtful promotion. Would you agree?


  3. Andrew, you are right that the underlying motivations behind the arguments are quite similar and do involve a desire to defend the social-control function of marriage. There is quite a bit of fear mongering concerning the consequences of the decline of marriage, the rise of divorce rates, and the incidence of unwed childbirth. I articulate in depth the links between those fighting against marriage equality and those in favor of marriage promotion in my book.


  4. Great post. I assume federal marriage promotion programs – with their hundreds of millions of TANF-diverted funds – are governed by DOMA. So the two are related, right?

    Also, not having read your book yet* — which looks great — I wonder what you conclude about the “effectiveness” of this program. Last I looked, it seemed dismal: And that’s if you approve of its goals.

    *For the first time, I tried asking for a copy as a blog reviewer, since I saw the option on the web page. The next day NYU Press started following me on Twitter, but didn’t respond to my email. I guess they’re reserving judgment…


    1. Philip, I read with interest your post a few weeks back on marriage promotion policies. As a qualitative study, my research is not well situated to address the question of effectiveness in terms of outcomes (your blog sums up some of the this nascent research well). But I do have some data that speaks to the effectiveness of the marriage initiative in Oklahoma to actually promote marriage among poor women and low-income couples, one of the goals of the initiative. First, as I note in my blog, low-income men and women were not predominant among those who attended the free workshops that were advertised to the general public. Second, when these workshops did target poor single mothers as part of a mandatory orientation to receive TANF benefits, they were not well received if they focused on marriage. In contrast, they were well received when the workshop leaders focused on teaching skills to improve relationships in general, like recipients’ relationships with their children.

      The question of DOMA governance is an interesting one. I only have data from my case study, but I do know that there was a memo circulated from Wade Horn, the former Assistant Secretary for Children and Families of ACF, specifying that marriage education workshops would not be afforded to gay and lesbian couples because they are not recognized as legally married. The marriage initiative in Oklahoma decided on a policy that wouldn’t bar lesbian and gay couples from attending, but also would not offer workshops to them as a targeted group (in the manner that the initiative offered workshops to other groups such as Christian workshops using a Christian version of the curriculum).

      I will follow up with NYU about the review copy!


      1. That’s great. If relationship skills support could be politically divorced from marriage promotion — and welfare requirements — that would be a whole nother kettle of wax. (Wade Horn was at a Counting Couples workshop last year, but failed to say anything inflammatory.)


  5. Speaking of divorce, I was just looking at Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and other conservative pro-family sites yesterday to help a student doing a paper on divorce. One might logically think that divorce prevention would be a central focus of “marriage preservation” groups. And there are a couple of small groups who list no fault divorce as a problem or link to some articles about why people ought not to divorce. But overwhelmingly, the silence about divorce on these conservative sites is almost deafening. It is fascinating that heterosexual marriage is being defended not with a defense of heterosexual marriage, but an attack on same-sex marriage.

    I was also interested to discover that NOW turned up on both sides of the divorce issue, both wading in against the change in New York (the last state to finally pass a no-fault divorce law) and generally against attempts to limit no-fault divorce being proposed here and there.


    1. Great point, OW. Andrew Cherlin has a good discussion of how Christians in America have come to accept divorce, as part of the personal journey to God, etc. It’s in The Marriage Go-Round.


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