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Should government intervene to save marriages?

By Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk

RedBlueAmerica.com

Published: Sunday, July 17 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Social conservatives want government to do more to encourage marriage and prevent breakups. A New Mexico legislator has proposed requiring parents to undergo counseling before the divorce; Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback recently heard a suggestion to repeal no-fault divorce in that state.

And the conservative Heritage Foundation has proposed a "Marshall Plan" for marriage that combines tax incentives, pro-marriage "messaging," and new rules making it more difficult for couples to end their union.

Should government promote marriage? Should it make divorce harder to obtain? Joel Mathis and Ben Boychuk, the RedBlueAmerica columnists, debate the matter.

Joel Mathis: Let's talk about freedom.

Republicans use that word — and its cousin, "liberty" — quite often.

Usually they're talking about financial matters. Individuals should be free from taxes. Businesses should be free from regulation. So it's odd that when the topic turns to marriage, conservatives rush to embrace the kind of nanny-state infringement on adult decision-making they otherwise decry.

What Republicans have failed to do is consider how their supposedly freedom-oriented policies may have undermined marriage in this country. One of the prime benefits of wedlock — beyond the uniting of two persons in love — is the economic security that comes from partnering. But such security has been increasingly difficult to come by: America's median household incomes have stagnated since 1980, even though many more households now have both a mother and a father working outside the home. That stagnation is easy to attribute to conservative policies that have steered more money to rich individuals and big corporations at the expense of workers.

In other words: It's much harder to raise a family. No wonder more middle-class Americans are "retreating from marriage," choosing cohabitation or divorce over the increasing economic strains of commitment. Rather than face those factors, though, Republicans would rather clamp down on freedom — repeal no-fault divorce and require counseling sessions of couples that have already decided they're better off apart.

Marriage is, generally, good. That's why so many gays and lesbians have fought for that right in recent years, and why weddings and anniversaries are so significant to the rest of us. The conservative instinct to protect and promote healthy marriages is a good one.

But activists would be best served by offering carrots — in the form of tax incentives and other economic assistance — rather than using the stick of government to force couples to remain yoked. There's no reason to choose between promoting marriage and protecting freedom. We can do both.

Ben Boychuk: The American way of marriage, since the very founding of the republic, has always encouraged procreation and childrearing. But that foundation has been eroding steadily over the past century, and its disintegration began to accelerate 40 years ago. Today, 40 percent of Americans view marriage as obsolete according to one poll, and children have become a secondary concern.

Marriage in America is a mess, and we have an Everest of social science evidence to prove it: Rampant divorce, cohabitation, single-parenthood, and all the attendant pathologies — including drug abuse, violence, and incarceration. Total U.S. out-of-wedlock births have exploded from 7.7 percent in 1965, to 41 percent in 2009.

The problem affects every race and almost every class.

Did Republican policies cause this crisis? Hardly. The vast majority of state and federal welfare programs discouraged marriage by providing greater benefits to unwed women. Conversely, Republican tax policies — particularly the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts so reviled by liberals — ended the so-called "marriage penalty" that placed greater burdens on married couples.

Truth is, a cultural shift, not economic policy, is what got us here.

Government can do little except tinker at the margins. Repealing no-fault divorce laws would help, but there is little political will to do so.

Even the Heritage Foundation's "Marshall Plan for Marriage" is actually quite modest. It recommends making the 2001 and 2003 tax reforms permanent, suggests spending more on pro-marriage ads, and praises states that have required some marriage counseling before divorce. Plenty of carrots, in other words, and a relatively small stick.

Yes, we can promote marriage and protect freedom. And we must. Strong families are the basis of a free and prosperous society, always and evermore. Cheapening marriage has cheapened America.

Ben Boychuk (bboychuk@manhattan-institute.org) is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. Joel Mathis (joelmmathis@gmail.com) is a writer and blogger in Philadelphia.

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