In a stroke of either a) utter incompetence or b) diabolical cleverness, The New York Times recently published a front-page, above-the-fold headline: "Bush Plans $1.5 Million Drive for Promotion of Marriage," calling it an "extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage." The next day, the Times repeated its original error, labeling the marriage initiative a "new White House" plan.
According to an analysis of media coverage by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, the errors of the Times metastasized: "Within days," she writes, "scores of other news organizations picked up the story, with news stories and opinion pieces appearing around the country, including The Boston Globe, USA Today, Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Dallas Morning News and at least 25 other metropolitan newspapers."
The dominant message of the media? In a cynical ploy to placate the religious right, upset over gay marriage, the president had announced a new marriage initiative.
What's wrong with this story? First, there was no White House announcement, and there is no new election-year marriage initiative. A New York Times story generated a misimpression that spread virtually unchallenged through the press corps.
At the National Press Club, marriage leaders pointed out that the administration first proposed a marriage initiative in 2002. It has nothing to do with the same-sex marriage debate, and it has an impressive array of bipartisan supporters. "I'm a feminist liberal Democrat," Marline Pearson, a community college professor who teaches marriage education in Madison, Wis., said. "I think child care, jobs, education are all very important. But I got involved in marriage ed because I have seen what happens to my students who get derailed by bad relationships, by unplanned pregnancies, by domestic violence. This is a missing piece we have to pay attention to."
At the same event, my own report, "Can Government Strengthen Marriage? Evidence From the Social Sciences," published by the National Fatherhood Initiative, the Institute for American Values and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, was released (for a copy go to www.iMAPP.org).
Is there any evidence that the Bush Marriage Initiative could work?
Critics say the programs are untested in troubled populations. But to my surprise, I found powerful suggestions in the research literature that marriage interventions may actually be most likely to benefit high-risk couples. One study of 88 male alcoholics and their wives, for example, found that alcohol-focused behavioral marriage therapy dramatically reduced rates of domestic violence. (Rates of severe violence dropped from 24 percent before therapy to 2.7 percent). This makes sense. Lots of people make happy marriages and don't need programs. It's the couples at highest risk for divorce and failure to marry that are likely to get the most benefit out of the kind of community and faith-based marriage skills programs that the administration is proposing.
Critics complain the initiative costs money. But $300 million is a tiny fraction of what we spend to deal with the social problems created by high rates of illegitimacy and divorce. You know what really costs big bucks? Having one-third of our babies born outside of marriage. These children, through no fault of their own, are more likely to be poor, welfare-dependent, to need special education, to get physically ill (Medicaid dollars), to become substance abusers, experience mental illness, commit acts of juvenile delinquency and become adult criminals, drop out of high school, be held back a grade, and to go onto become young unwed mothers and fathers themselves, perpetuating an expensive cycle of downward mobility.
What's the alternative? More babies born and raised by their own mothers and fathers in decent marriages. Earth to The New York Times: What is so shocking or cynical about trying to accomplish that?