States Adopt Marriage Education Courses

By: - August 7, 2007 12:00 am

Like the hapless couple in the new Robin Williams movie,  License to Wed, marriage-bound Texas residents will soon be able to go to class to learn about the ups and downs of wedded life before they tie the knot.

Texas is the latest state to push marriage education, appropriating .5 million this year for programs aimed at reducing divorce rates and, in turn, promoting family stability and economic wellbeing. Couples who attend the Lone Star State’s optional marriage courses will be able to save the they would otherwise pay for a marriage license starting September 1, 2008.

At least 28 other states have similar initiatives or will soon. Arkansas and Arizona lawmakers this year appropriated new funds for existing programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), and at least 26 states won five-year federal grants for pre-marital counseling programs under a .5 billion Bush administration program aimed at fostering healthy marriages.

Critics say states should leave marriage education to churches and family counselors. But marriage education advocate Arlene Wohlgemuth says states have an interest in matrimony, from issuing marriage license, trying divorce cases and collecting child support to providing aid for a variety of social welfare problems that result from broken families.

In the movie, a whacky minister whose church has only one spot left on its wedding calendar for the year puts a happy couple through a marriage-prep boot camp in hopes of getting them to break up. Reverend Frank, the character Robin Williams plays in the movie, observes at one point: “Someone once said ‘marriage is bliss,’ but that someone probably wasn’t married.”

Unlike the movie scenario, state education programs do not set out to give couples cold feet, said Jack Tweedy, an NCSL social welfare expert. To the contrary, state programs try to help unmarried couples with children find marital bliss, or at least stay together, he said.

In Texas, marriage courses offered by religious groups convince 15 to 20 percent of couples that marriage is not for them, said Wohlgemuth of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute.

Wohlgemuth, a former Republican state lawmaker, supported the new Texas law because she said “so many of the state’s poverty-related problems can be traced to the breakdown of the family.” In Texas, the new course will cover only two topics: communication and conflict resolution, she said.

Over the past decade, states have joined churches, community groups and non-profit organizations in efforts to help couples develop lasting marriages. Although it is too soon to know whether marriage education has helped reduce or stabilize divorce rates, states’ interest in the topic is growing, said marriage expert Theodora Ooms of the liberal advocacy group Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP).

Since the mid-1990s, every state has adopted at least one policy change designed to promote marriage and reduce divorce rates, according to a study by CLASP, Beyond Marriage Licenses. Thirty-six states have adopted policies to overcome a bias in federal welfare rules that makes it easier for unmarried parents to receive cash assistance, according to the report.

In general, states with higher-than-average divorce rates have been the most aggressive in promoting marriage. Massachusetts has the lowest annual divorce rate at 2.2 per 1,000 people, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Nevada has the highest rate at 6.4 divorces per 1,000 people.

In at least six states -Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Montana, Oklahoma and Utah-governors and other state officials have declared strengthening marriage to be a top priority, according to non-profit advocacy group The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education.

Three states-Louisiana, Arkansas and Arizona-have so-called covenant marriage laws, allowing couples to opt for a stronger marriage contract, including pre-nuptial training and longer waits in divorce proceedings.

Maryland allows counties to reduce marriage license fees for couples who complete counseling and Arizona, California and Utah provide counseling for minors, according to NCSL.

In 1998, Florida – which ranks in the top ten for divorce rates — was the first state to promote matrimonial health, offering marriage license discounts for couples that attended classes and making marriage education mandatory for high school students.

Among the most ambitious state efforts, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating (R) in 1999 set aside million in welfare funds for a marriage education project designed to reduce divorce rates as a way to boost the state’s flagging economy. The program, which has been funded continuously since then, is now serving some 115,000 people across the state.

This year Oklahoma will spend an additional .6 million on marriage education and plans to expand its training force of 2,300 volunteers to reach high-risk groups such as couples in the military, partners of prisoners, families with autistic children and grandparents raising grandchildren, said Kendy Cox, Director of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.

To reduce poverty, state welfare programs have long encouraged couples with children to stay together, and when that fails, they help single-parents get child support from ex-spouses.

In Washington state and Minnesota, child support enforcement agencies were awarded federal grants for programs fostering fatherhood and marriage. Grants for similar programs in Indiana and New Jersey went to corrections departments to help inmates successfully rejoin their families. Other states are using federal grant money to offer marriage education in high schools and state universities.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.