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Government gets into business of Extolling the benefits of marriage

McClatchy Tribune illustration (McClatchy Tribune illustration / The Spokesman-Review)
McClatchy Tribune illustration (McClatchy Tribune illustration / The Spokesman-Review)
Sharon Jayson USA Today

Marriage has turned into quite a quandary for many young adults. Should they or shouldn’t they? Can they escape divorce? Will moving in together forestall a breakup? These conflicted feelings haven’t gone without notice in Washington, D.C.

Carrie and Joe Burns of St. Louis are 24 and 26. They met when she was 16 and he was 18 and dated for eight years. Then they lived together for nine months. Then they were engaged an additional 18 months. They finally got married in August.

For Katie D’Hondt, 18, of Grosse Pointe, Mich., “marriage isn’t something I think about right now.” The University of Michigan freshman hasn’t yet even decided on a major.

The average age at first marriage is now almost 26 for women and 28 for men. And a growing percentage of Americans aren’t marrying at all: Provisional federal statistics released Tuesday report 7.1 marriages per 1,000 people in 2008, down from 10 per 1,000 in 1986.

Faced with such numbers, the federal government is funding a $5 million national media campaign that launches this month, extolling the virtues of marriage for those ages 18 to 30.

“We’re not telling people, ‘Get married’ but ‘Don’t underestimate the benefits of marriage,’ ” says Paul Amato, a Pennsylvania State University sociologist and adviser to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, which is spearheading the campaign.

The resource center, a federally funded virtual clearinghouse, works under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families.

Research suggests a bevy of benefits for those who marry, including better health, greater wealth and more happiness for the couple, and improved well-being for children.

Some say the government has no business using tax dollars to promote marriage. But others say the campaign is just like those conducted by other federal agencies to encourage the use of seat belts and discourage drug use, smoking and drunken driving.

With ads on social networking sites Facebook and MySpace, videos on YouTube, spots on radio talk shows, ads in magazines and public transportation and a new website (, creators say the aim is to start a national conversation about marriage.

‘A different world out there’

“These are people who are in the prime marrying age. A lot of them have not had good role models about how to have a successful marriage,” says Amato, co-author of the 2007 book “Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing.”

“Marriage has become more optional, and it’s a different world out there. That’s why we think it’s important to focus on this group of young people, because the rules are less clear.”

Just how the marriage information will be received is anyone’s guess, because the government’s marriage initiative is “caught between two competing truths,” says William Galston of the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

“One truth is we really do need a national conversation about marriage. Marriage rates have been dropping. Young adults are concerned and confused about the issue. They don’t know exactly where to turn.

“On the other hand, there is a real and justified suspicion about the role that government can play in this discussion,” says Galston, who was a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration.

“What we’re talking about is a slow but steady increase in the percentage of Americans who don’t intend to get married and probably won’t,” he says. “This trend represents a meaningful change in our society. Whether or not it constitutes a problem depends on broader, and contested, propositions about marriage in relation to the common good.”

To find out how to tailor the media campaign, the resource center commissioned a Chicago-based youth research company called TRU to get inside the heads of the 18-to-30 age group. Through online surveys of 3,672 men and women over the summer, researchers found five distinct segments:

•14 percent express strong sentiments against marriage.

•22 percent aren’t ready but say they eventually plan to wed.

•23 percent have a practical view of marital unions and often live together first.

•19 percent are enmeshed in the magic of love.

•22 percent have a strong belief in the institution of marriage.

Of those surveyed, 69 percent were single, 29 percent married, and 2 percent were separated, widowed or divorced. Of the singles, 47 percent were in a committed relationship, 18 percent were dating but not in a committed relationship, and 35 percent were not dating.

“One of the surprising things, given the divorce rates and the culture, was that the motivation for marriage is quite high,” says Peter Picard of TRU, which also conducted focus groups to supplement the surveys.

Resource center project director Mary Myrick of Oklahoma City says the media campaign has a budget of $1.25 million a year for four years; the campaign is part of the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative, a Bush administration effort under the Administration for Children & Families.

In 2005, Congress allocated $750 million over five years to the marriage initiative, with $100 million a year for marriage-related programs and $50 million a year supporting fatherhood programs. Of those dollars, the resource center is receiving $2 million each year over five years. The media campaign money is an additional annual allocation, according to HHS.

“Most people want to get married someday, and most do. That’s not at issue,” says Nicky Grist of the Brooklyn-based Alternatives to Marriage Project, a nonprofit advocate for the rights of the unmarried.

She and others have organized an ad hoc coalition that will ask the Obama administration to stop using anti-poverty money for marriage promotion.

“What’s at issue is really two things, from our perspective,” she says. “Should government tell people when to get married? And should government and society privilege marriage over all other relationships? Our answer to both those questions is no.”

Will young people listen?

Whether young adults will heed the marriage message is yet to be determined. But Jeffrey Arnett, a research professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., who was among the first to study emerging adulthood, says he’s “pretty cynical.”

“They don’t want to be told what to do by their parents, by employers, by their friends. They really want to make independent decisions. And there’s no decision bigger than this,” he says. “They take marriage very seriously. That is a very private journey, that search for the soul mate. I can’t imagine they’d want the advice of a government agency.”

Johanan Odhner, 24, a grad student in chemistry at Temple University, believes in marriage.

“It’s always been my goal to have a family, and I want to be young enough when I have children to have an active presence and have the energy to do activities with them,” says Odhner, who married in May.

His wife, Chelsea Odhner, 24, says she would be receptive to the campaign but understands those who wouldn’t. “I know a handful of people who have lifelong partners and have kids with them and aren’t married. Even though my personal view is I choose marriage instead of living with somebody, I understand for other people they might not be comfortable with that.”

Marisa Martineau, 29, of Falls Church, Va., doesn’t like the idea of an ad campaign for marriage.

“Government should be focusing on spending my tax dollars to reduce the disparities that exist between married people and unmarried people and not encouraging marriage,” she says.

Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families, disagrees. He advised the Bush administration on welfare policies and the related marriage initiative. “The government finances campaigns on smoking, seat-belt use, drug use,” he says. “We spend millions of dollars supporting public campaigns to change public behavior. From that perspective, this is entirely appropriate.”

But that was then.

Now, with dwindling federal dollars and a change in political power, the future of many programs is unclear, says Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Although she says President Obama supports marriage and fatherhood programs, the struggling economy is forcing the administration to “make choices based on shrinking budgets and a worsening economy.”

“One of the areas we want to take a hard look at is the effectiveness of advertising across the agencies that fall under HHS,” she says. “We have not made any decisions in regard to programs or specific ad campaigns, but we are looking carefully at everything.”

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