A number of public policy researchers and advocates have worried about the implications of marriage promotion since President Bush announced the agenda in 2001. In a broad sense, they contend, it fails to acknowledge what life is really like for the young, low-income individuals and families targeted by the Bush plan. In particular, the agenda does not adequately address the stressors of poverty, and for some, the related issue of racism, both of which have a profoundly negative impact on families, they say.

"We know the ecological context that generates and sustains high marriage rates--economic stability and equal ratios of available men to available women--and the marriage initiative doesn't change the ecological context," says Yeshiva University psychologist Louise B. Silverstein, PhD, who with colleague Carl Auerbach, PhD, also of Yeshiva, studies fathering among low-income minority men. "This initiative is not making these men and women more economically stable."

That said, she and other critics acknowledge that some of the programs related to the agenda, such as the new federal demonstration projects (see page 38), are trying to address these concerns. But if the projects are to work, they must keep economic and cultural factors front and center, critics believe. Here are some of those topics of concern.

Father involvement

A major impetus behind marriage promotion is increasing father involvement--in essence, getting low-income fathers to take more responsibility for childrearing and their relationships with female partners, says Silverstein. But this approach is like asking someone who hasn't attended medical school to become a surgeon overnight, she says.

"Empowerment is the key to helping these men find a more effective place in society," she believes.

In a research evaluation of a Head Start-related fathering project involving young low-income African-American men in Far Rockaway, N.Y., Silverstein and Auerbach are seeing that many of these young men are at risk of getting into some kind of trouble. From a starting point of underfunded schools, poverty and family chaos, they often do poorly in school and drop out. Some turn to selling drugs for money, for lack of other skills and life experience. Many land in jail, and many die young. Their girlfriends are at higher risk for pregnancy--one of the few ways both genders in this community have to feel a sense of power, Silverstein notes.

Helping these men transcend this negative cycle means being with them for the long haul, Silverstein believes. Teaching fathering skills is not enough: Efforts must also include legal, psychological and practical skills and assistance. She and Auerbach, for example, plan an intervention that is designed by the men themselves.

"If we don't have a tightly woven safety net to catch them, it's just not going to work," she maintains.

The situation of single mothers

Poor, single mothers who are targets of this legislation likewise need a broad range of services, adds Tanya Burrwell, special projects manager in APA's Women's Programs Office. Of central importance is addressing the barriers to these women's self-sufficiency, including a lack of adequate job-supporting activities such as education and job-training, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and access to affordable, high-quality child care.

"The [marriage-promotion] funds would be better spent on what we believe are more effective strategies--helping poor women equip themselves to better support their families and move out of poverty," Burrwell says.

In addition, the plight of poor single mothers is related to the economic issues facing the men in their communities, says University of Pennsylvania psychologist Marion Lindblad-Goldberg, PhD, who has studied and worked with poverty-level African-American single women with children in the Philadelphia area. Men in low-income communities face high unemployment rates and many lack income levels above the poverty rate, she notes. The situation differs among cultural groups, she adds, but in general, women in these communities may fare better economically on their own than if they marry the men of their communities, she notes.

Increased domestic violence is also a concern if these women are encouraged to marry, critics fear. Getting locked into marriage may increase the likelihood of violence, says Leslie Cameron, the women's programs officer in APA's Women's Programs Office. And while some of the new programs include domestic-violence components, "We are concerned that the screening tools they use may not accurately identify everyone who has had or is in a violent relationship," Cameron says. For example, women may be afraid to disclose violence for fear of losing their children to child protective services, she notes.

Effects on children

Marriage-promotion proponents often cite research showing that children are happier in two-parent biological families--and more recently, two-parent, low-conflict biological families. That recent addition is of the essence, researchers say, because other data demonstrate how unhealthy conflicted marriages are for children--in some cases, worse than divorce, one of the purported ills the agenda is trying to address.

In May, psychologist Nicholas Zill, PhD, of the research corporation Westat, delivered testimony to a Senate subcommittee citing some of this research. Highly conflicted marriages affect children more negatively than divorce or post-divorce conflict, he stated, and marriages that are violent are the most damaging of all. Youngsters with parents in high-conflict marriages are more likely than those with parents in low-conflict marriages to have academic and behavioral problems including aggression, delinquency, poor self-esteem and depression, Zill stated, and they are also more likely as adults to be depressed and have other psychological disorders. (For a copy of the briefing paper that APA's Public Policy Office prepared for the hearing, go to Briefing Paper.

Psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, who studies work and family issues at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, cautions that it's impossible to infer a causal relationship between marriage and the well-being of kids and couples because people are not randomly assigned to married or unmarried groups. In her own research, she has found that marital quality is more important than marital status.

"The folksy way of saying this is, 'There's nothing quite so good as a good marriage, and there's nothing quite so bad as a bad marriage,'" she says. "The notion that marriage has good effects in and of itself is not based on sound science."

In related findings suggesting the potential advantages of sensitive, well-designed couples interventions, a recent longitudinal intervention study of 100 couples and their first-born children by University of California, Berkeley, psychologists Philip Cowan, PhD, and Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD--who also are consultants to the demonstration projects--found that preschool children whose parents received a couples-group intervention that emphasized parenting reported feeling less shy and depressed, and a greater sense of well-being, than those whose parents didn't get the intervention. But when parents received an intervention that emphasized issues in their relationships as couples, it had a doubly good effect: "Not only did the couples benefit, but their parenting improved," Philip Cowan says. Two years after the intervention, their children showed less aggression and higher academic achievement than youngsters whose parents didn't receive the intervention, he notes.

Multiple stressors

In general, researchers say, multiple stressors in these communities present an enormous obstacle to marriage. In a survey of 4,508 low-, middle- and high-income Florida residents conducted last year to help inform the state's marriage initiative, University of Florida psychologist Benjamin Karney, PhD, found that Floridians with the lowest income were more likely to be divorced, to be raising a child alone or with an unmarried partner and to lack relationships of any sort than those with higher incomes. But in line with data from the longitudinal Fragile Families and Child Well-being study conducted by Princeton and Columbia University researchers, Karney also found that low-income Florida couples were more likely than higher-income couples to report traditional attitudes toward marriage, such as the desire to get married and the belief that people should wait until marriage to have sex.

The intervening variable, says Karney, is stress. "These couples face a lot of concrete challenges, such as poor health and lack of health insurance, high rates of substance abuse and ongoing family stresses such as sick relatives and sick stepchildren," he says. "All of this creates stress that makes it difficult to maintain fulfilling, intimate relationships of any kind."

Karney, who is consulting to the federal demonstration project run by the poverty think tank MDRC, says the effort aims to find tools to help these couples better handle such stresses.

Adds Theodora Ooms, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C.: A key to their success will be not only addressing cultural and economic factors, but also making sure they're implemented and evaluated well.

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.