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'The President's Marriage Agenda': How to reduce suffering for children and strengthen families

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16 2012 12:05 a.m. MST

The report authors believe that ending marriage tax penalties and disincentives in entitlement programs is key to making marriage more enticing and attainable for couples. Options could include refunding some of the penalty people give up if they get married. "That sends a strong message marriage matters," said Marquardt.

Right now, some social program support is stripped from people who marry. The group called on the president to back plans to allow people who marry to remain in those programs. That also includes older couples, who won't have children, but who are an example to the young. Over time, she said, marriage helps families be more stable and as they become stable they don't need the benefits and let them go.

"We've socialized in a sense the care of the elderly, which makes sense," she said. "So we need to provide some support to parents who are raising the future taxpayers."

There are different views of what is causing the decline in marriage.

"I think that what we're seeing today is a lot of weakening capabilities of young men," said Lerman. He noted males lag behind females in both college and high school graduation and said he supports trying to expand occupational training, especially apprenticeship, to help young men and young women — but especially men — to gain certain mastery of an occupation they can take pride in.

Not integrating young people into rewarding careers earlier is a mistake that impacts both the labor market and marriage, he said.

What is not being recognized is "the need to create more of a marriage culture and stable couple relationships. This is a critical problem that affects inequality as well as poverty and there are things that might be tried. Whether they'll succeed, I don't know, but they are constructive in their own account, like teaching couple relationship skills that probably would extend to work and other relationships, including with children," he said.

Young people lack role models on relationships, though relationships are critical. It's a life skill they need, like personal finance. That is tackled in schools.

Figuring out why

There's little disagreement that families are breaking down and marriage is declining among the middle class, said June Carbone, law professor and family issues expert from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. There is considerable disagreement about what's causing it and how to fix it.

She was not involved in the State of the Unions report, though she blogged about it. She agrees that family has become the subject of class-based distinction. But she is among those who believe the cause and thus the cure are related to inequality and economics. "I don't care if you emphasize marriage or not, but you ought to be concerned when these things become a marker of class." The lack of a two-parent family impacts the stability of the kids, she said.

"The problem is not family values or marriage looked at in isolation," she told the Deseret News. "The problem is what's happening to the economy and the way men and women match up." She's co-authoring a book on the topic.

The wide economic inequalities produce a mismatch between men and women that translate to fewer marriages and families facing all types of trouble, Carbone said. The gender wage gap has widened since 1990. Among college grads, especially those from families where college is tradition, there's no drop-off in marriage. But among college attendees from families that are not already high income, there exists what she calls a "mismatch." There are more women, and fewer men are deemed marriageable. That combination destabilizes marriage, she said.

"We agree marriage is a problem," Carbone said, "but it's a symptom, not the cause." Her proposed solution is different, too. "Focus on the economy, creation of jobs, good jobs. ... The economic redistribution from the bottom to the top is what's destabilizing families. We think the problem is greater inequality."

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