Should the government encroach further into the institution of marriage?

May 5, 2008

Marriage is perhaps one of the most private matters of an individual’s life, and it is also something that is increasingly becoming a public issue in the United States. Among the many reasons for this trend includes the fact that almost fifty percent of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. There are either to too many marriages taking place,  or too little of it- both scenarios has created convoluted family structures, thereby affecting the well being of communities. As the Frontline production, Let’s Get Married discusses, over the past half-century the number of single-parent households has increased dramatically to take over about one third of families in the U.S. The “traditional” family structure in the U.S. seems to be disappearing, causing governments to take action.  Governmental involvement in marriage has of course raised concerns, as while the ideologies of some of the policies may be good, but they are still essentially invading into a very private and personal matter of the people.

Changes in the attitude of marriage have taken place from mid-20th century, as the impact of women’s movement of the 1970s led to the reevaluation of the institution of marriage. The expansion of economic opportunities has led to women taking more control of their lives as individuals first, and thereby marrying and bearing children later and simply having more voice in marriage and domestic issues. The impact of Gay Liberation Movement has also brought attention to the apparent discrimination in marriage laws and spousal benefits, causing people to really think about the limits of marriage as a official institution versus personal choices and morals. The legitimization of illegitimate offspring of unmarried parents has caused changes in state adoption laws as well. These are some of the many challanges that have taken place in the last fifty years, and changes are continuing to take place in this country today.

As Let’s Get Married showcased, the problems of marriage today are pretty serious and complicated. The correspondent Alex Kotlowitz illustrated how this private matter now has dire public consequences, as social, political, and economic forces have come together to influence the “modern marriage movement”. The show looks at two very different scenarios- the state of Oklahoma where you have the nation’s second highest divorce rate, and the city of Chicago in Illinois where actually getting married is not happening. In 1999, the most extensive experiment to tackle the problem of marriage took place when Governor Frank Keating launched a $10 million initiative to make people think carefully before actually getting married. This includes various programs to give new perspectives to people, and the question of its effectiveness remains unclear. In Chicago, only one in ten children are born to married parents, and often, the child becomes the reason for marriage which could be a good or a bad choice for the couple. The couples that were showcased were living in poor, urban neighborhoods, often with illegitimate children and on welfare. Ashaki Hankerson was one such woman who had seven children by three different men, living on welfare, and wanting to marry the father of her youngest child who is unemployed and looking for work. Further, the work titled The Marriage Problem by James Wilson also looks at marriage and addresses these same concerns of the impact that these unstable marriage and family structures have on children. He argues that today, money and culture has a huge role on marriage, and the family has lost its “moral basis”, as we live in a society driven by sudden impulses and “self-indulgence”. These works reflect many issues with marriage and how it goes beyond the relationship of a man and a woman- it reflects the progress or the lack of it of the American culture, the concern of family and community structures, economic advancement, as well as welfare, education, and dealing with the division between rich and poor, minorities and majorities.

Today, policy makers must take all of the factors into consideration when looking at marriage. Marriage is under the attention of the government because it has so many public implications. President Bush has stated that “stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy,” and has proposed spending over $300 million on experimental programs to encourage marriage every year. Funding programs to promote marriage among the poor have already been considered in review of federal welfare programs. States like Kentucky, Arkansas, Utah, Michigan, and North Dakota have already prohibited civil unions. If this continues, governments, whether state or federal will have more active roles in marriage, as whether one is liberal or conservative, the increasing problems seen with family structures is becoming very apparent in American societies, as highlighted by Let’s Get Married.

Indeed today, it is difficult to create a national family policy in a post-modern society because issues such as marriage have become so complicated. The nature of society is changing at an age when technology is advancing, economies are becoming globalized, the role of genders is becoming increasingly divergent, and morals are being questioned on a daily basis. Government interventions can hurt or promote marriages- but most importantly, it is becoming something on the minds of future married couples. Because of the extent of public consequences, governments should lay down some basic rules while trying to avoid interfering in individual rights as much as possible. Today, many issues have to be looked at when we think about what can or should be done about marriages, such as the rights of children and biological parents, the rights of surrogate parents, family policy taxes and benefits, child custody, as well as attention to unintended incest and health problems. Married people are becoming the new minority in the U.S. The state is becoming a stakeholder in generational replacements; as marriage alternatives expand, laws will have to be adjusted.

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