In politics, issues ebb and flow with public moods. Some of the ones caught in a receding tide deserve more lasting attention, however.
Nearly 20 years ago, under the urging of then First Lady Jackie Leavitt, Utah established a marriage commission and placed it under the governor’s office. That was when Republicans held family values high atop their list of priorities. The idea was to find ways to promote stable families and protect children from the often-debilitating effects of divorce.
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The commission eventually migrated to the Department of Workforce Services and then to the Department of Human Services. In 2013, it was put into law and given a sense of permanence, but permanence doesn’t always translate into funding.
Today, it’s hard to tell where the party stands on traditional family values. Meanwhile, budget cuts to the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, which had been a source of income for the commission, have fallen.
In the recently completed legislative session, a bill that would have added $20 to marriage license fees to enhance commission funding — a fee that would have been refundable if engaged couples agreed to take a marriage education course — failed. The Legislature finally allocated $150,000 from the general fund to the commission, about half what it used to get.
The commission once had a full-time coordinator to answer phones, update a website and administer programs. It now has a part-time person, but she will be leaving soon. After that, Human Services staff will answer the phones in addition to their regular duties.
If you think the need to strengthen marriage has dwindled along with the department’s budget, you haven’t been paying attention. While divorce rates actually are dropping, the people getting married these days tend to be wealthier, better educated or religious. A large section of the nation remains unwed, leading to what the Census Bureau said was 12 million single-parent families in 2014, of which 80 percent were single mothers. Twenty-five percent of the nation’s children don’t have a father present.
I don’t have space here to list all the disadvantages and struggles that await children in broken homes, but poverty is one of them. So is the propensity, as adults, for them to repeat what their parents did. It’s an intergenerational cycle worth trying to stem.
Marriage is more popular in Utah than in most states, but Alan Hawkins, the chair of the commission and a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, said failed marriages still cost the state more than $200 million a year in various ways.
Weighed against this, “The work we do doesn’t have to be terribly efficient to pay for itself,” he said.
Hawkins won’t pretend the commission can fix the whole problem. It already provides pre-marital classes for those who are interested. These are available to all couples, including same-sex ones. It also helps existing married couples deal with challenges.
Studies estimate the commission has reduced the number of children born to single parents by 3 percent, a small figure, but at least a move in the right direction.
Not long ago, marriage was assumed to be a private matter, or one best handled by a couple and their religious leader. Now, Hawkins said, there is a realization that marriage “is also profoundly public,” and the poor are less likely to get help through private sources. Not surprisingly, he has begun looking for ways to attract private funding.
If lawmakers revived the idea of incentivizing engaged couples to take a course, Utah would hardly be pioneering something new. Texas, for example, adds a $60 refundable fee to its marriage licenses. In Florida, it’s $32.50.
It may be that these programs in other states are part of the reason divorce rates are declining. It may be that 20 years of attention to the problem has had an effect. But it would naïve to think a nation that went from a rate of 5 percent births to unwed mothers in 1960 to more than 40 percent in 2014 does not need greater attention to how its people deal with romantic relationships, regardless of whether any political party puts it at the top of its list.