Lawmakers in three states are assessing the latest legal tactics to strengthen American marriages.
In North Carolina, the proposed Healthy Marriage Act would require divorcing couples to attend communication counseling and, if applicable, a class on how divorce affects children. The waiting time before a divorce could be finalized would be doubled (to two years), and couples would no longer be required to live separately during the interim.
In Texas and Georgia, lawmakers are considering similar bills that would apply only to parents of children under 18. The bills would extend waiting periods to 6 months and 11 months, respectively.
The bills are the latest attempts to reverse troubling marriage numbers, where no current strategy is a clear winner. While the divorce rate has dropped over the past decade (from 4 per 1,000 people in 2000 to 3.6 in 2011), marriage rates are dropping as well (from 8.2 in 2000 to 6.8 in 2011).
The bills take a different tack than Louisiana's pioneering "covenant marriages," where couples waive their rights to a no-fault divorce and have to seek counseling before getting one. Only 2 in 100 couples opt for a covenant marriage, but do stay together more often than those in traditional marriages, said W. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia (UVA). "It was having that sense of commitment, and the expectation that if they did divorce, it would be more difficult."
But the counseling requirement proved dicey, since not all counselors are pro-marriage, said Mike McManus, president of Marriage Savers. "What [a study] found was quite disturbing," he said, citing Covenant Marriage by UVA sociology professor Steven Nock. "Those who sought professional help actually increased their odds of divorce."
Instead, McManus recommends mentoring by experienced married couples. He founded Marriage Savers in 1996 to train churches to pair mature couples with those whose marriages are new or struggling.
He claims success: An estimated 10,000 churches have signed his "community marriage policies," which employ five different interventions. In addition to pairing couples with mentors, pastors promise not to marry couples without premarital counseling and to create support groups for stepfamilies.
Participating cities have seen their divorce rates drop up to 17 percent, he claims.
But now McManus is turning his attention to public policy. "We've had 10,000 or so churches involved in our work, but this is a country of 350,000 churches," he said. "We need to go after laws [that] have just encouraged excessive numbers of divorces, and try to change them."
One idea is requiring mutual consent for couples with children to divorce, which McManus advocates in his 2008 book, How To Cut America's Divorce Rate in Half.
But while policies reach more people more quickly, there is no evidence that they make much difference, said Ron Haskins, codirector of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. The Bush administration offered a marriage-education initiative with mixed results, he said.
"There is good evidence that for middle-class families, marriage education makes a big difference," said Haskins, who served as senior adviser for welfare policy during the Bush administration. "But that doesn't mean it will work for low-income and minority families."
He said the Bush-era programs designed to educate low-income couples were often wasted when couples failed to show up.
"The idea [of] 'build it and they will come' didn't work," said Haskins. "Whatever we do, trying to get the men and women—especially the guys—to come is going to be a great challenge. If they don't come, you can't expect effects."
High divorce rates are troubling, he said, but the main problem is that marriage rates are too low. "More and more people are convinced we need to do something about it. [But] we really have not had much experience with public programs intended to increase marriage rates."
Some argue that the tax code penalizes marriage, but the child tax credit and earned income credit both address this, said Haskins. "We might try looking at marriage penalties in our social programs."
Wilcox said eliminating the welfare marriage penalty—where couples currently on welfare become ineligible once they marry because their now-combined income exceeds federal limits—would help. So would extending a tax credit per child and entitlement taxes like Social Security and Medicare.
Another "important ingredient," he said, is "a strong religious culture that preaches and teaches and offers support to people who are learning the ropes, or who are struggling within their marriages."
There is no magic answer, said Haskins. "We need an experimental attitude. We don't know what works."
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