Commentary: Michelle Bachmann and marriage myths

The Kansas City StarJuly 17, 2011 

A little cleanup post-Rep. Michele Bachmann's twirl through Iowa.

Bachmann ignited howls for signing a marriage-support document stating that black children born into slavery in 1860 were more likely to be raised by two parents than black children today.

OK. Rule No. 1 for politicians, especially those seeking the presidency: Never insinuate that slavery was a positive force for black people. Don’t do it. No matter how dear to your heart the point you wish to convey.

For Bachmann, that would be the power of marriage as a force capable of improving any economic, health or child-related conundrum. In her world, marriage (but only between men and women) solves all.

Marriage does have social and economic benefits. I agree with Bachmann in promoting it — to a point.

But in signing “The Marriage Vow: A Declaration of Dependence Upon Marriage and Family,” she vouched for perspectives on marriage steeped in misinformation. The slavery portions have since been deleted. Other presidential candidates wisely declined to sign.

The problem is what marriage historian Stephanie Coontz called the document’s “collection of unrelated facts and dubious causal claims.”

Many pro-marriage conversations assume that low-income women have a plethora of marriage-ready men available, that they are simply shunning marriage. By marriage-ready, I mean men with no criminal record who are emotionally stable, educated or have a marketable skill so they are fully employed to their abilities.

Marriage rates are lower in low-income areas because more people there don’t have these stabilizing factors. Marriage will not bestow them on people.

Most people (90 percent) marry. But they are marrying later and living longer. Higher percentages of people are unmarried largely due to demographic shifts, not necessarily disenchantment with marriage. Divorce rates peaked in the early 1980s.

Another red flag in the document is the insistence that women and children are worse off today.

Both domestic violence and child abuse have dropped dramatically in the last 30 years. States that began allowing no-fault divorce saw 8 percent to 13 percent declines in wife suicide and 20 percent to 30 percent drops in domestic violence. Allowing people a way out of marriages can be beneficial.

Happy, safe, secure marriages should be the goal. Research strongly links two factors to divorce: people marrying young and a lack of financial resources. I realize these facts don’t easily fit into stump speech mantras.

But if Bachmann or any politician desires to see more and stronger marriages, they would support education, affordable child care and financial literacy.

In fact, contrary to first inclination, they’d stress delaying marriage to achieve its full potential.

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