Marriage polls and pols

Posted: May 15, 2002 12:00 AM
Have you heard the news? Americans HATE the Bush marriage initiative.

The usually thoughtful David Broder broke the news in a Washington Post column. "So it was a shock to me," said Broder, that when Americans were asked whether the government should develop programs to encourage people to get married and stay married, "by a margin of 79 percent to 18 percent, they said they favored the government's staying out of marriage promotion." Even 60 percent of highly committed white evangelicals, he said, quoting the poll by the Pew Research Center, opposed such programs.

It would be a surprise to anyone familiar with surveys showing the deep tide of concern about family fragmentation. Bad poll, I sniffed, and turned the page. But when I began seeing other references to how unpopular the Bush proposal is, I decided to find out for myself.

Most Americans do not know this, but respectable polling companies will help anyone with approximately $750 to develop and insert a question in a nationally representative telephone survey. So I commissioned my own marriage poll with Opinion Research Corp., which was recently released by the Coalition for Marriage, Families and Couples Education (

Pew Research Center asked a single question: In your view, should the government start up programs that encourage people to get and stay married or should the government stay out of this?

On May 3 through May 6, Opinion Research Corp. asked 1,016 American adults a few different questions. For example: Thinking about children in low-income, single-parent households, how important do you think it is for their overall well-being that their parents get and stay married? Sixty-seven percent of Americans called it very important, 19 percent agreed it was somewhat important. Just 9 percent thought getting parents to marry and stay married was either not too or not at all important to poor children. (Margin of error: 3 percent.)

What's astonishing is the absolute uniformity across all racial and class lines: 87 percent of whites thought marriage was important, but so did 85 percent of African-Americans and 90 percent of Hispanics; 85 percent of college grads agreed that marriage mattered, but so did 90 percent of high school dropouts. Eighty-seven percent of Americans making $50,000 or more agreed, but so did 86 percent of Americans with household incomes of less than $15,000.

But maybe, as critics say, Americans deeply support the goal but disapprove of the means. Maybe marriage is just too private a matter for government to get involved with in any way. This would be odd, in my opinion, seeing as how the government grants marriage licenses and oversees divorces (not to mention funds single parenthood), but American opinion does not have to be consistent. So I asked: Would Americans favor, say, programs educating teens on the importance of waiting for marriage? (Yes: 85 percent) What about pilot programs to refer interested couples to marriage education and preparation programs? (Yes: 84 percent) What about using surplus welfare funds in general for programs to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce and out-of-wedlock births? (Yes: 67 percent)

Once again, strong majorities supported the idea across all racial, ethnic, income and education lines.

What is the difference between the Pew poll and mine? You be the judge, but I think it is this: The Pew poll mentions marriage out of context, conjuring images of a government suddenly rising up and urging random folks to marry. Americans understand there may be many reasons why single adults choose to not to marry. That is not the government's business.

My poll framed the marriage initiative in the real-world context of welfare policy, of parenting and poverty.

When it comes to children, there is no longer any debate: Americans believe children are better off with married parents, and they support reasonable public policies that would help more of our children end up that way.