Florida is starting the New Year as a welfare reform success. Florida's welfare caseload has declined significantly -- a whopping 74% according to a recent Workforce Florida report. This achievement makes Florida the leader in caseload declines among the nation's eight largest states. Since implementation of the welfare reform measure called TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) in 1996, the emphasis has been on placing poor people into new jobs, thereby enabling them to become economically self-sufficient. But that is only half the battle. An important focus in the "unfinished business" of welfare reform must be "to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families" -- one of the main family formation goals of TANF.
Why should government get involved in something as personal as marriage?
While we need to ensure that government's role is properly harnessed in this area, we also need to recognize that there is abundant research proving that children raised in homes headed by continuously married parents fare, on average, better educationally and economically than children growing up in any other family structure. And besides, the government is already involved. Its most common role is stepping in after a crisis or when a family is already suffering from less than favorable circumstances. Government is present in divorce proceedings, child support collections, food stamp allocations, and foster care. Wouldn't it be more beneficial to prevent family crises rather than mopping up the mess afterward?
And Florida has quite a mess when it comes to divorce, a reality recently acknowledged by Governor Jeb Bush. In 2001, there were 153,298 marriages and 85,259 divorces. Currently, 1 in every 3 adults (32%) has been divorced at some point. Nationally, 25% of adults indicate they either are now or have been divorced. Thus, Florida appears to be significantly above the national average in the rate of divorce. George Gallup, Jr. says, "If divorce were a physical disease, we'd declare a national emergency." Clearly it's of epidemic proportions in our state.
Of course, the goal is not to penalize the couple who chooses divorce, nor encourage people to remain in abusive or unhealthy relationships.
The goal is to establish positive ways for government to support healthy marriages. Right now, however, state efforts to promote two-parent families are lacking. Just one-percent of total TANF expenditures are made to promote healthy marriages. The limited attention paid to marriage by states is due in part to the lack of knowledge about how to establish and implement successful family formation programs.
One ready resource for ideas is a program in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative started with an extensive baseline survey of its citizens on marriage and divorce. Once needs were identified, Oklahoma trained hundreds of volunteers to provide free marriage and relationship education workshops. Because Florida is such a culturally diverse state, we need to begin by conducting a solid research survey as well. This survey will give us a firm foundation to establish measurable goals for a Florida marriage initiative. We also need to identify reliable, research-based educational materials for teaching couples the kinds of skills, attitudes and actions that make for marital success. PREP (Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program) is considered by many as one of the most comprehensive and well-respected programs of its kind for couples.
Additionally, since about 75% of marriages are conducted in a church, synagogue or other religious institutions, these entities need to be involved in any marriage initiative.
A number of clergy in cities across the nation have united to create what some call "community marriage covenants" which establish minimum standards if a couple wants to be married in a church or synagogue in that city. Florida's 9,000 plus congregations offer a wealth of human and financial resources that can be mobilized to help couples considering marriage or struggling in marriage. Specifically, faith groups are strategically positioned to provide pre-marital and marital counseling, and training of mentoring couples to assist young couples during the crucial first years of marriage.
Governor Bush is willing to tackle this sensitive and important issue facing Florida's families. We should welcome and support his efforts to build strong marriages in our state.
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