Since I announced the creation of a healthy marriage initiative in Alaska, there has been considerable interest and discussion throughout the state. In an essay entitled, "Sharing our learning with the community," Jeanne Curran of California State University and professor Susan Takata of the University of Wisconsin maintain, "Responsible democracy, representational or otherwise, requires a citizenry able to hear validity claims in good faith and come to collective action." Alaska's Healthy Marriage Initiative is a "coming to action" of sorts as we work to promote and protect the health and well-being of Alaskans. It has been my experience that good social welfare policy is developed when we engage in public discourse, especially to the extent we endeavor to hear the valid claims of those with opposing views.
In making a decision to use public funds to promote and support the formation and maintenance of healthy, married, two-parent families, we in the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services take the social science research at face value. This research holds that marriage can bring a positive return to individuals, couples, children and communities.
In May 2004, Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior consultant with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, gave testimony before the U.S. Senate on the healthy marriage initiative. In his remarks he cited numerous research studies that demonstrated significant differences in poverty rates between single-parent and married-couple families. He noted that while, "the single most potent antidote to poverty is work," he went on to say, "marriage is not far behind."
During his testimony, Haskins went into great detail describing the research methodologies used in two separate studies to control the influence of other factors in order to assess the impact of marriage on poverty. These studies, one by Brookings and the other by Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, provide strong evidence that, "marriage itself, independent of all the other differences between married and single parents, is a cause of the lower poverty rates enjoyed by married parents and their children."
Not all of the research on marriage is conclusive. Research in social science seldom is. But a growing body of research supports the notion that marriage is in fact one of the contributing elements to the well being of families and our society as a whole. Single parents in this country make heroic efforts to raise healthy, happy and successful children. But data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows poverty rates of children in single mother head of household families are five or six times higher than children living with married parents.
This initiative offers us an opportunity for dialog. The healthy marriage initiative may prove to be one of those social issues where few if any of us would find ourselves without an opinion on the matter. While I do not share the view that providing funds to support a healthy marriage initiative in Alaska is a waste of government funds, I can agree with the notion, "You cannot teach love."
Mark Twain may well have agreed with this point when he said, "Love seems the swiftest but it is the slowest of all growths. No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century." We're not proposing to spend government funds on teaching love, for in the end that is beyond what can be taught. We have created for ourselves an opportunity to bring forward a number of ideas and suggestions as to how we can promote the formation of a special kind of relationship that strengthens families and improves the lives of children.
Doing what we can to grow healthy relationships and marriages helps partners find a way to say what they need to say, to get to the heart of their problems, and to increase and strengthen the connections they have with one another. Through this discourse we have the opportunity to take collective action and tackle issues like poverty and find ways to be healthier and happier in our homes and communities.
Joel Gilbertson is the commissioner of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.