Here's a marriage proposal we should reject

February 24, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - No sooner do we recover from the abject humiliation of Joe Millionaire - I can't believe I saw the whole thing - than along come our friends from Fox with another variation on the theme.

The new, slightly more democratic offering invites the public to do the matchmaking. Under the banner, "You Watch, You Vote, They Marry," we are asked to pair up five couples. These daring duos will meet for the first time on their engagement day and go off on a journey to marriage "in hopes they have found their one true love."

This show is dubbed Married By America. But it is by no means the only, or even the most official, way to be married by America this year. In Washington, Congress is ready to turn itself into a hitching post. On the eve of Valentine's Day, the House passed a bill that would allot $1.5 billion over five years to promote marriage as part of welfare reform. The version offered in the Senate would raise the federal dowry another $50 million a year.

If only we can get the Fox News Channel - otherwise known as the official broadcasting station of the Bush administration - to sign on, we could have a prime-time show matching poor single mothers on welfare with the men of our dreams. Evan dear, where are you when we need you?

The welfare reauthorization bill that's likely to pass has two new features.

One would increase the work requirements for welfare recipients, nearly all of them mothers, to 40 hours a week.

Back in 1996, you may remember, the first welfare reform bill put the government seal on a vast social change that said, in essence, a (poor) mother's place is in the work force. In 2003, the Bush administration wants poor mothers to be involved in "constructive activities" - as opposed to child-raising - for 40 hours a week, or forfeit the welfare check.

The second feature, you might even call it the alternative, is the marriage proposal.

Now, before I have to pack my bags and leave the chateau, let me say that I am in favor of marriage, especially my own. By and large, children do better with two parents and four arms juggling work, family and life. I don't think the proposals to teach marriage and relationship skills are a patriarchal plot.

Not long ago, I interviewed the administration's marriage man, the genial Wade Horn. He made the point that poor couples don't have access to the same marital services as middle-class couples. If we approve of marriage, if we know something about relationship skills, he said, why not share them? Mr. Horn seemed to regard government matchmaking as a way to get men back into the conversation.

Fair enough. But the honeymoon is over for me when the government promotes marriage as an anti-poverty program.

For openers, we don't know how many folks are poor because they are unmarried and how many are unmarried because they are poor. We don't know whether relationship skills or moneymaking skills are more important in the marriage market. In Joe Millionaire, the question was not just whether the women were gold diggers but whether the man, stripped of his $50 million "inheritance," would be revealed as a loser.

Fox gave Evan and Zora $1 million for their hope chest. But what's the government going to do with $1.5 billion?

One highly touted program in West Virginia gives welfare couples $100 extra per month for as long as they stay wed. In other states, they give "driver's ed" premarital classes. Meanwhile, Oklahoma paid $250,000 to a couple of gurus to hold "relationship rallies" on campuses around the state.

Moreover, many of the programs they laud promise quick fixes. Some have shorter runs than The Bachelor. It's no surprise that a TV couple breaks up after they leave the brief, intense spotlight. What's the half-life of a marriage after the campus rally or the premarital workshop?

We don't know much about how to create and maintain healthy marriages at any point in the economic spectrum. "We have all sorts of cultural anxieties about changes in the family," says University of Michigan sociologist Pamela Smock. "We know it's a problem in our own lives and we're fearful about the harm to society. Now it's as if all our anxieties are being imposed on the low-income group."

Conservatives once talked derisively about social engineering. Not anymore. Married by America? Take a seat. We are about to watch the government produce a new kind of reality programming.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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