To Have and To Hold: Congressional Vows on Marriage and Sex

In 1996, Congress passed a law, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which created welfare block grants for states. PRWORA promotes traditional marriage in two ways. The block grants allow states to choose to spend welfare funds on marriage-related programs for welfare and non-welfare recipients alike. PRWORA also includes separate funding for states for abstinence-unless-married programs that teach marriage first and then sex. Since 2002, the program has been repeatedly extended through a series of stop-gap measures called continuing resolutions. In the first months of 2005, Congress has begun to take up reauthorization, so it has a chance to debate these marriage and abstinence education provisions. It will also consider a third way to promote marriage: a set-aside of significant welfare funds for federally defined marriage promotion activities, augmenting what states are already allowed to spend.

Professionals in sexuality education, family planning, reproductive health, family life, and other related fields face challenges with the politicization of marriage. Increasingly, research is demonstrating that the well-being of children who grow up with two biological parents who are not in conflict exceeds that of children in other living arrangements. Professionals engaged with families should be interested in promoting these benefits.  An edited version of this article also appears in the SIECUS Report.

However, marriage is not necessarily a benefit for everyone, including those who are too young or too immature. Some married couples are better off divorced, particularly those in an abusive or high-conflict relationship. There is a risk, too, that some politicians who are wedded to their ideas of marriage will pass laws that are far from ideal and actually undercut the development of healthy couples and families.

With reauthorization, Congress has an opportunity to pass a law that better recognizes both the benefits and risks of marriage promotion.

To learn more, read this brief by Jodie Levin-Epstein.