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March 2, 2002
Column #1070

Bush Makes Marriage Next Reform of Welfare Reform

     I had an eerie but wonderful feeling this week as I heard President Bush announce his welfare reform agenda.

     It was the most important speech any President has given on marriage.

     And the key solutions the President outlined have been pioneered by Marriage Savers, an organization my wife and I created five years ago.

     Speaking in a black Catholic Church in Southeast Washington where there are many single parent families, the President acknowledged, ''Single mothers do heroic work.'' However, he noted ''Their lives and their children lives would be better if their fathers had lived up to their responsibilities.'' Applause erupted from the largely black crowd.

     ''Statistics tell us that children from two parent families are less likely to end up in poverty, drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out of wedlock, suffer abuse or become a violent criminal and end up in prison. So my administration will give unprecedented support to strengthening marriages,'' a remarkable statement sparking hearty applause. 

     He noted that there are ''many good programs help couples who want to get married and stay married. Premarital programs can increase happiness in marriage and reduce divorce by teaching couples how to resolve conflict, how to improve communication and, most importantly, how to treat each other with respect.'' 

     The President is right. My wife and I created such a program in our church and have taken it to churches in scores of cities. Since 1992 in our home church, we trained 59 couples to mentor those preparing for marriage. We administer FOCCUS, a premarital inventory that surfaces up to 192 issues for discussion. The man and woman meet separately and express whether they agree or disagree with statements like these:

     ''My future spouse always has to win. 

     ''I am uncomfortable with the amount my future spouse drinks.''

     A computer report indicates agreements and conflicts. Mentor couples then devote five evenings to talk through every issue as well as assign a dozen exercises to ''teach them how to resolve conflict, how to improve communication,'' as Bush put it. 

     With what result? Of 302 couples who signed up through 2000, 21 dropped out and 34 broke up before there was a wedding. But of those who married, there have been only seven divorces in a decade. That's a 2.5 percent failure rate!

     The President praised another form of couple mentoring: ''There are also programs for couples with serious problems alcoholism, infidelity or gambling. Trained mentor couples who have experienced severe marital problems themselves now teach other couples how to repair their own marriages. Using this approach, one national program reports being able to save up to 70 percent of very troubled marriages.''

     That describes Retrouvaille (800 470-2230), a weekend retreat attended by 65,000 couples. On average it saves four out of five marriages. Bush was also describing a parish-based couple mentoring program Marriage Savers fosters called ''Marriage Ministry,'' that actually saves 90 percent of shaky marriages.

     Finally, Bush proposed $300 million ''to support innovation and find programs which are most effective.'' Why? ''Strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children.''

     David Boaz, of the conservative Cato Institute, was critical: ''Marriage is one of the most intimate associations in our lives, and the government should stay out of it.''

     NOW President Kim Gandy sneered, ''To say to these women, where the father of their children has abandoned them or abused them, `You've got to track him down and marry him or your check is going to be reduced,' that's terrible.'

     Both ignore a crisis. As Bush said, ''Between 1965 and 1995, federal and state spending on poor and low income families increased from around $40 billion to more than $350 billion a year.  Yet during the same 30-year period we made virtually no progress reducing child poverty. And the number of children born out of wedlock grew from one in 13 to one in three.'' 

     The 1996 welfare reform law slashed welfare rolls in half. And today there are 5.4 million fewer people in poverty. The black poverty rate is at an historic low. However, out-of-wedlock births grew by another 100,000 a year, to 1.35 million, a third of all children.

     The obvious answer is healthy marriages. No one advocates forcing women to marry abusive fathers as Kim Gandy asserts. HHS Assistant Secretary Wade Horn, who oversees welfare, asserts, ''We're going to support activities that help couples who choose marriage for themselves develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage.'' 

     Why is $300 million needed? Only 1 percent of America's 300,000 congregations have marriage mentors today. A massive training effort is needed.

     The President has taken a giant step toward restoring marriage in America.

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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