Presented to Assembly 2001, “Global Violence: Crisis and Hope,” New York, October 19-22, 2001
I want to discuss why government is a party to the fast track of family breakdown and some of the solutions to the crisis. I want to begin with a quote: “The sanctity of marriage and of family relations mark the cornerstone of our American society and civilization.”
These words were spoken not by President George Bush, although he could have said that. They were spoken in the 19th century by President James Garfield, whom some say was one of the poorest men [monetarily] ever elected president. Obviously he was rich in wisdom. And I expect every country has national leaders or statesmen who believed in this principle and who could utter a similar statement.
Marriage and family are essential to the well-being of our social, political, economic, and civic institutions. Healthy marriages not only benefit the immediate family. Healthy marriages benefit society as well. Consider what the research shows about people in a healthy marriage. They are happier, healthier, and they live longer. They have more financial security. They have more satisfying sex. They have less depression. That’s probably because of the satisfying sex and better mental health. They are more productive employees and are absent less at work. People in healthy marriages have less domestic violence. They are more philanthropic. And there’s less substance abuse.
In 1960 there were 383,000 divorces in the United States. In the 1990s that number approached 1.2 million, a threefold increase. Despite the heroic efforts of many single parents, the reality is that children of divorce are two times more likely to drop out of school, three times more likely to get pregnant as teens, and six times more likely to live in poverty compared to children from parents in intact, two-parent families. As columnist John Leo says, “The myth that children are resilient and usually overcome the shock of divorce has been mugged by a brutal gang of facts. Children of divorce are at serious risk.” Experts say that the reasons behind the growing number of broken families are complex. Society has changed, they say. And certainly, it has.
Compared to the women of the 1960s, women today feel less trapped if they are in an “unhappy marriage.” They are intolerant of domestic violence. They have more education, professional skills, and financial independence. Single parenting doesn’t carry the stigma it did a generation ago. In fact in New Mexico, 44 percent of all children are born to single parents. And people for the most part accept divorce along with fast food and DVDs as a part of our modern culture.
Aside from the cultural factors impacting our rising divorce rate, let’s take a look at what government has done to put couples on a fast track to marital dissolution and the billions of dollars spent on government programs necessary because of the result of family breakdown.
One step down that fast track is that every state has enacted no-fault divorce statutes primarily as a response to victims of domestic violence and civil libertarians who promote greater freedom to leave an unhappy marriage. Although the Constitution guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law, that protection is not guaranteed to a non-consenting spouse in a no-fault divorce proceeding. That’s the party who does not want a divorce.
In only 20 percent of divorce cases do both parties want a divorce. In the remaining 80 percent, only one party files. Studies show 25 percent of these involve some kind of cause; 10 percent, for instance, involve repeated physical abuse. Another 15 percent involve infidelity, abandonment, or substance abuse. That leaves nearly 55 percent of divorce cases where one party wants out without a clearly defined cause. So, here’s the way no fault divorce works in most states. You and your spouse are not communicating well, and over a period of time you become unhappy. One party petitions the court for dissolution of the marriage on the grounds of incompatibility or irreconcilable differences. The court finds in favor of the petitioner, and the marriage is dissolved.
But let’s look at two interesting statistics: (1) teaching fundamental relationship skills including communication and conflict resolution skills, increases the likelihood of maintaining the happiness, health, and longevity of the marriage, and (2) 86 percent of people who said they were “unhappy” or “in a bad marriage” and stuck it out reported five years later that their marriages were happier. Sixty percent said they are “very happy.” So, one way to stop the hemorrhage of family breakdown is to reform unilateral no-fault divorce. Some states have enacted time periods and mandated counseling prior to marriage dissolution, especially in cases where minor children are involved or there is only one consenting spouse.
Now, let’s look at the ways states are working to strengthen marriage. In Florida the legislature mandated that high school students take marital preparation classes that include content on communication skills and conflict resolution skills. The state also reduced the fee for a marriage license to those who provide evidence of this training. In Louisiana the legislature recently asked the governor to establish a Council on Marriage to “monitor, develop, and evaluate policy, programs, curricula, publicity, and delivery of services to family to assure that government does not undermine or discourage the institution of marriage.” Louisiana, along with Arizona and Oklahoma, passed “covenant marriage laws” that allow couples to elect into a more stringent form of marriage licensing and marriage dissolution. This includes mandatory premarital counseling and a mandatory “cooling-off ” period and counseling period prior to marriage dissolution.
In 1996, Congress passed welfare reform, which had four main goals: (1) to provide assistance to needy families; (2) to end dependence on government benefits by promoting job, work, and marriage; (3) to prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock births; and (4) to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families. Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) block grants were given to states to spend in ways consistent with the act.
Some states are finding innovative ways to use these TANF grants.
In Arizona, the state legislature under the leadership of Representative Mark Anderson, chair of the Human Services Committee, recently established a Marriage and Communications Skills Commission to encourage community-based organizations to train married couples and couples contemplating marriage in communication and conflict resolution skills. It also appropriated $2.9 million from the TANF block grant for a variety of services to needy families, including $75,000 for vouchers to enable low-income married or cohabitating parents to attend a marriage skills training course, $1 million for community-based marriage and communication skills programs, and $75,000 to develop, produce, and print a marriage handbook. In the most ambitious statewide pro-marriage effort, Governor Frank Keating plans to lodge a TANF-funded $10 million initiative to reduce Oklahoma’s divorce rate by one-third by the year 2010. Proposed activities include training and educating caseworkers and public health nurses within state agencies to promote marriage and creating a media campaign to highlight marriage building skills.
In New Mexico we’ve introduced a number of measures to strengthen marriage. Each of these measures was dead on arrival, usually by the time it was heard in the second committee. Among our proposals was one to give a $100 tax credit to couples who’ve taken marital training or marital maintenance programs during the calendar year, and one allocating money for the cooperative extension services at our land grant university to develop a curriculum that would be available to high schools throughout the state. Another would have provided money for a media campaign targeting youth to laud the benefits of marriage.
Since we didn’t have support from the legislature for programs such as these, we had to work from the ground up. So what we did was contact the governor. The governor said, “Well, we realize that sometimes that legislature has its own way of doing things. So if you can find grassroots support for some of these things, then I’ll agree to host a summit on marriage and parenting.” We created an advocacy and organizational vehicle called the New Mexico Marriage and Parenting Alliance and organized three committees, one on strengthening marriage, another on reducing the culture of divorce, and a third on enhancing parenting.
We gathered together a blue ribbon statewide panel to address these issues and propose solutions. The work resulting from these committees was presented to the governor and the attendees at the governor’s Summit on Marriage and Parenting in October 2000. Many of our summit recommendations became the basis for a seven-point legislative package that we introduced this year.
I suspect that New Mexico reflects the environment on marriage and family strengthening measures in many states. The results of the governor’s summit are clear. The New Mexico Marriage and Parenting Alliance has grown into a support vehicle that is leaving a developing network of growing legislative support and a public and private resource center in its wake.
Additionally, the alliance has organized marital support and youth leadership training programs in Albuquerque churches, parent training programs in the schools, and character development seminars with youth groups such as the Boy Scouts. Presently the alliance is facilitating meetings with the goal of organizing a community marriage policy where faith leaders and even some family court judges say that we should not license marriage without evidence of premarital preparation. For those who do not have strong leadership from the executive or the legislative branch, a bottom-up approach such as the governor’s summit is something to consider.
In conclusion, a recent AOL poll showed that the number one reason why divorce is so prevalent is because couples don’t work hard enough on their relationships. In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, in a chapter entitled “Love is a Verb,” Steven Covey tells the story of a conversation he had with a frustrated husband. “My wife and I don’t have the same feelings for each other we used to have. I guess I don’t love her anymore. And she doesn’t love me. What do you suggest?” Covey said, “Love her.” And the husband said, “You don’t understand. The feeling isn’t there anymore. My wife doesn’t have the feeling. I don’t have the feeling.” And Covey looked at him again and said, “That’s why you need to love her. If the feeling isn’t there, that’s a good reason to love her.” “My friend,” Covey said, “love is a verb. The feeling is a fruit of love, the verb. Love her. Sacrifice. Listen to her. Affirm her. Are you willing to do that?”
Unfortunately, many couples today lack the training, the commitment, and the time to practice wise advice like this. Government should provide incentives and support for couples as they walk the long lifelong path of marital maintenance because this does promote the general welfare. Let’s work together to implement incentives and programs to strengthen marriage and reduce family breakdown. As the words of President James Garfield remind us, marriage and family are the cornerstone of our society and civilization. This is true in the United states as well as in every country in the world.