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August 19, 2000
Column #990


     Bill Bradley eloquently told the Democratic National Convention, ''Most of us would never turn our backs on a starving child, yet every day, we ignore 13 million poor children in America. If all of them were gathered in one place they would create a city bigger than New York and we would then see child poverty as the slow-motion national disaster that it is. If we don't end child poverty in our lifetime, shame on me, shame on you, shame on all of us.''

     Yet he failed to cite the cause of child poverty: the lack of enduring marriage.

     One-third of the nation's 4 million births are out-of-wedlock. Another 1 million children see their parents divorce annually. These children are headed for poverty.

     One study reports that in 1994 when children lived with two parents, their family income averaged $43,600. After divorce, these kids had to live with one parent, on only $25,300.

     Such children are also likely to have diminished learning capacity, are twice as likely to drop out of school as those from intact homes, are three times more likely to become pregnant as teens, 6-fold more likely to commit suicide and 12 times more likely to be incarcerated.

     Therefore, for the sake of children, isn't it time to make marriage a political issue? 

     Two governors of states with high rates of poverty and divorce have done so. They demonstrate what political leaders can do. 

     First: set high goals. Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating told his Legislature that 35 of 77 counties have more divorces than marriages, and set a goal to cut the divorce rate by one-third in a decade. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee declared ''a state of marital emergency'' and set a goal of ''slashing the divorce rate in half by the year 2010.'' 

     Second, both asked their pastors create ''Community Marriage Policies'' in which clergy ''sign a covenant that they will require premarital counseling before marrying anyone, the purpose of which is to say, `Honor and care for your spouse in a lifetime partnership commitment. Learn about finances and learn how to fight fairly,''' Keating told the Heritage Foundation last month.

     In June Heritage published a landmark study, ''The Effects of Divorce on America,'' which urged all states to ''promote'' Community Marriage Policies or Community Marriage Covenants: 

     ''A well-executed Community Marriage Covenant project can save up to 80 percent of marriages headed toward divorce, reconcile more than half of the separated couples, and enable 80 percent of those in stepfamilies to become successful parents and partners. Many cities that have undertaken a Community Marriage Covenant project have seen divorce rates plunge. For instance, in Modesto, California, the divorce rate has fallen 35 percent in 10 years; in Kansas City, the rate dropped 35 percent in two years. Community Marriage Covenant projects are tangible, practical, and results-oriented,'' said the report written by Patrick Fagan and Robert Rector.

     How are they so successful? The core idea is simple. Couples in good marriages are trained to help prepare couples for a lifelong marriage, to strengthen existing ones and save troubled marriages. A network of Mentor Couples can put a ''safety net'' under every marriage. 

     Astonishingly, that can virtually eliminate divorce in any local church.

     Killearn United Methodist Church in Tallahassee, with 2,500 members, has had no divorces since January, 1999 when it trained Mentors. The First Assembly of God in Rockford, IL trained 14 couples whose marriages had nearly failed, to meet with those considering divorce. Therapists in town heard about it and sent over dozens of their worst cases. In three years Mentors have seen over 100 troubled marriages and saved all but four of them. To learn more see profiles of six Marriage Saver Congregations on

     Governor Keating also asked his Legislature, ''What is the sense of a system where it is more difficult to get a hunting license than a marriage license and it is easier to get out of a marriage contract with children than out of a tupperware contract?'' He proposed lowering the cost of a marriage license if couples got marriage preparation, and giving them the option to get a ''Covenant Marriage Certificate'' that waives their rights to no-fault or unilateral divorce, as passed in Louisiana and Arizona. They pledge to seek help if in trouble, 

     Finally, Keating is appropriating $10 million of surplus welfare reform funds for innovative programs to train state health, welfare and agricultural workers to teach skills of communication and conflict resolution to thousands of couples not reached by churches, to hire several people to work with the churches to develop Community Marriage Policies, and pay for ads with the message that those who marry are healthier, happier, wealthier and live longer.

     I predict the poverty rate of Oklahoma and Arkansas will drop as marriages are strengthened.

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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