Ron McLain has no qualms about the federal government getting involved in marriage. Indeed, he's counting on it.
McLain has applied for a $550,000 federal grant to hire counselors for Marriage Mentoring Ministries Inc., a tiny business in Fresno County, Calif., that helps couples before and after they exchange wedding vows. He also has a bid in for a $250,000 grant to teach men to become better fathers.
"The market is obviously very ripe for this with the divorce rate as high as it is, and obviously couples want a good marriage," said McLain, who oversees the organization along with his wife, Joan. They specialize in training couples to mentor other couples, with many of the classes taking place at local churches.
The grant money represents the latest shift in welfare reform in the United States. For the next five years, Congress is setting aside up to $100 million a year to promote marriage and $50 million a year to produce committed fathers. This year's allotment goes out before Sept. 30.
Supporters say that if the government can get more low-income parents to tie the knot and help them work through the rough spots that inevitably occur, then those families are less likely to need federal assistance in later years.
"Children who grow up in healthy, stable, married households don't wake up one day and decide they want to run away to Hollywood and become street prostitutes," said Wade Horn, the Bush administration's point man for welfare reform. "Couples in a healthy, stable married relationship don't come home one day and decide they want to abuse their children. This, in my view, is an exercise in limited government."
Others see the government as engaging in a social experiment with scarce resources they say would be better put elsewhere.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., says the Republican-backed program is like a city filling potholes right before the next mayor's race. Only this time, the administration is reaching out to religious groups.
"This is one of those real strange things they get involved in where they say they want small government and they say they want to get government out of people's lives. Then they go try to find two high school kids and use some money to encourage them to get married," McDermott said.
But Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., said children in one-parent households are seven times more likely to live in poverty than those in two-parent households. Yet, more and more children are being raised in broken homes, which leads to more spending on welfare and other government programs, he said.
"It's amazing to me how anyone can find this controversial," Herger said. "Being a parent of nine children myself, it's tough enough to raise children when there's two parents, let alone when there's just one mother, totally alone, trying to raise a child."
David Fein, a demographer who has conducted extensive research on marriage and the poor, said getting low-income couples to marry is not the hard part.
"They actually marry at the same rate as more affluent people. The problem is, subsequently, their marriages are much more fragile," he said.
There are various reasons for that fragility, but financial stresses and strains play a part. At the same time, the poor don't have the same ability as wealthier Americans to get help when their marriage needs it, he said.
But Fein's point underscores that seminars on conflict resolution and learning to say you're sorry won't solve the problem entirely.
"Fortunately, the people who have developed these policies are not arguing that all you have to do is help people learn better relationship skills," he said.
The federal government has provided some money in recent years to promote marriage, an average of about $14 million annually during the past four years, said Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Marriage Mentoring Ministries, which works with church groups, already has obtained one grant for $50,000, which McLain used to hire a part-time employee and to purchase a computer and printer as well as other supplies. He used the equipment to make thousands of leaflets about the benefits of marriage.
McLain hopes the larger grants will allow his organization to reach minority communities. He likes welfare's expanded emphasis on marriage, especially what it can do for children.
"When they watch mom and dad ... resolving their conflicts and having a normal relationship, they'll be better able to carry that on in their relationship when they start dating and get married," he said.