The less good news is that part of the shift away from single mothers was into cohabiting rather than married families. A study by Sara McLanahan and colleagues, also reported at this conference, suggests "children born to cohabiting mothers are reportedly more aggressive, more withdrawn, more anxious/depressive, and have more overall behavior problems at age 3 than children born to married parents." Part, but not all, of this difference can be explained by characteristics of the mother (including age and mental health status).
The last afternoon of this groundbreaking conference was devoted to public policy implications: What can government do? Professor Steven Nock of the University of Virginia has new research suggesting that the counseling requirement in covenant marriage helps deter divorce. Professor Frank Furstenberg, skeptical of the possibility of encouraging unmarried parents to marry, urged a new focus on divorce interventions among high-risk low-income families.
Professor Ron Mincy at the Columbia School of Social Work urged including more African-Americans among providers of pro-marriage interventions. He made a strong case for focusing on discouraging unmarried childbearing as a necessary prelude to building a stronger marriage culture among the poor. When unmarried childbearing is common, spouses bring children from multiple partners into the marriages, complicating enormously the task of building stable, healthy marriages.
New ideas, new criticism, new energy, new initiatives. Whether or not it ever passes the Congress, we have a lot for which to thank President Bush's marriage promotion proposal. Now that the marriage turnaround has started, the question becomes not, is it possible to strengthen marriage? But how do we keep the good news going?
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.