Love and Marriage ... and Government Counseling

Those who think they're not the marrying type may be persuaded otherwise once they attend a Bush administration program designed to promote love and marriage between low-income couples.

The brainchild of marriage czar Wade Horn, a marriage and fatherhood advocate who was appointed assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the Health and Human Services Department, the proposal would give local governments money from failing welfare programs to educate low-income parents about marriage skills and the benefits of two-parent households.

The idea has already drawn ire from groups like the Cato Institute and the National Organization for Women.

"Marriage is one of the most intimate associations in our lives, and the government should stay out of it," said David Boaz, executive vice president of Cato. "Marriage has lasted for thousands of years without a federal program to encourage it."

Supporters say the program isn't a matter of government-arranged marriages; it's a program to help couples develop the foundations for a healthy marriage.

"Most of the people who find it controversial don't know what it is," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. "We're providing some good services to people who choose to take advantage of them. It's not imposing anything on anyone, and they are not taking any services away from single parents."

The plan proposes using $100 million already appropriated to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program that was designed by Congress to encourage states to reduce unmarried birth rates, an initiative that has seen few tangible results.

Instead, money from the program will be given to state and local governments to set up voluntary services — like pre-marital counseling, and marriage and relationship education workshops — for couples in poor communities who want to say "I do."

"All the evidence we have tells us there's a very strong link between the weakening of marriage and the growing number of children in poverty," Blankenhorn said. "Society has a stake in stable marriages."

But NOW President Kim Gandy said the stakes might be too high if the federal government winds up funding unhealthy or violent marriages or penalizing states that aren't successful in increasing marriage rates.

"For individual people, marriage may or may not be the right choice, especially if the person is an abuser," Gandy told Fox News. "To say to these women, where the father of their children has abandoned them or abused them, 'You've got to track him down and marry him or your check is going to be reduced,' that's terrible," she said.

"No one argues that bad relationships are good," Blankenhorn said, and dysfunctional couples are not the target of the program.

According to Blankenhorn, about half of all low-income mothers who seek public assistance are living with the father at the time the child is born, and many say they're in love and are considering getting married — but don't wind up tying the knot.

Even with good intentions, some aren't convinced that a government-sponsored marriage plan will actually lower child-poverty rates and strengthen families. Such services already exist in a number of local communities, in states such as Oklahoma and California, but there are not definitive, widespread statistics that show they're getting results.

"I'm skeptical that the kinds of programs we have right now are going to make much difference. But I would not argue against some experimental efforts," said Brookings Institution senior fellow Isabel Sawhill.

Early indications are that the plan will be approved, but even Blankenhorn admits he's not sure how successful it will be.

"We don't have solid evidence that these programs will achieve a goal," Blankenhorn said. "It might not work. But this particular program seems modest and well designed. I think we should give it a try."