In defense of partnerships

Posted in Liberty, Society at 8:45 by RjZ

It’s a decade now since President Clinton signed the “1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” The intention of this bill was to ensure that welfare recipients don’t become entrenched in the system and never find work. Supporters at the time claimed that women, in particular single mothers, were motivated to have children and not to get married, simply so that they could receive money.

That’s rubbish, of course.

Kathryn Edin is a sociologist at University of Pennsylvania and she co-wrote what many experts agree is a leading text on poverty Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. In it she points out what ought to be obvious. Poor women don’t have children in order to get a pittance from welfare, and they don’t avoid marriage because they have shaky morals. Instead, these women have children because it’s one of the few forms of empowerment they have open to them. Furthermore, they dream of getting married, but they hold marriage in such high regard, that they hold off until they are in love and confident that their marriages will last. In short, these women aren’t examples of the decay of morals in society. They share the same conservative views as most of their neighbors in the suburbs of big cities and in the heartland of the United States.

In spite of that, the first line of of the 1996 welfare reform act is “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” The law openly intended social tinkering with a goal of restoring the nuclear family and help lift single parent families out of poverty. It’s easy to see that single parents have a harder time making ends meet than couples. How is the woman to nurse her three month old while working at Wal*mart (or anywhere, for that matter?) And the State (that means you!) definitely has stock in this matter, because it costs money to support people on welfare.

It’s this kind of argument, along with threats of decay of moral society that are spawning an almost war-like posturing “in defense of marriage.” I happen to agree that welfare costs taxpayers a lot of money and that when people share the burden of raising a child, there is a greater chance of success for them (and a much happier child!) I can see how the State, then, would have an interest in encouraging this behavior. What doesn’t follow is why the State is involved in supporting what is essentially a religious rite.

State needs only to encourage that two (or more) people live together in a semi-permanent bond that spreads economic burden between them. Whether these people are married in a church or friends for the past 20 years is immaterial. Whether people choose to live in a commune or a same-sex partnership is certainly unimportant to the State, who’s only interest need be that young citizens grow up in a nurturing environments where they go to school and get enough to eat. Whether people acknowledge their bond in front of God, Buddha, Flying Spaghetti Monster or no one at all, is really none of the government’s business.

The government needs to get out of the marriage business altogether.

What the State should support are stable relationships, for these are what is best for its young citizens. Why would a couple, married in a church six months ago, deserve more rights than a same-sex partnership that has lasted 12 years? Odds are that the married couple won’t be together seven years from now, but after surviving 12 years so far, the gay pair will probably be able to stick it out longer still. Which would have been a more economically stable environment for a child?

What if instead the government were to offer the rights and privileges to, I’ll call it “legal partnerships” on the condition that they, just for example, have demonstrated successful co-habitation for two years or more? Any couple (or group for that matter) who has shown that they can successfully live together for this period, provided they wish the economic and tax advantages of partnership, must now go through the same legal wrangling if they choose to dissolve the partnership. This “legal partnership” should have the benefits and challenges associated with what we call marriage today. But entry into it should not be restricted to those who believe in a certain religions. Entry into this partnership should be offered to those who have demonstrated a chance at success, because that is what the government needs to promote: stable economic relationships that will lift families out of poverty.

Social conservatives (none of whom probably read this blog in the first place ) are probably screaming now! They should be cheering. This proposal is truly a defense of marriage. If your church or belief-system thinks that homosexuals are devil’s spawn and that marriage cannot be desecrated by having gay unions, well, you’re entitled to that view and the government of the United States certainly shouldn’t tell you otherwise. (That’s essentially how social conservatives see Massachusetts’ supreme court decision.) Marriage, a religious rite, should be defined within the bounds of the church in which it is practiced. One church thinks gays can marry, another does not. Who am I (or the government) to say which should be allowed and which not. If I have lived with my partner for the last 20 years but we don’t have a sexual relationship, does that mean that I can’t see her in the hospital if she becomes ill? The government can keep its nose out of my business and in doing so, the sanctity of marriage is actually better maintained; exactly where it belongs: in the churches and temples where it is ordained.

It’s true that single parents have it harder. There are dozens of studies showing children raised in these conditions have a more difficult time than those raised by two parents. In addition to being a just proposal that is fair to all religious and non-religious citizens, such a legal partnership might enable some of those poor women to encourage an economic partnership while still maintaining their high regard for marriage. Regardless, it’s still none of the government’s business what the situation is by which these partners have chosen a legal bond. The sooner the government get’s out of the marriage business the better it will be for marriages and children alike.


  1. Rachel said,

    May 24, 2006 at 20:02

    You assume that social conservatives are interested in practical outcomes, such as laws/policies that objectively strengthen social institutions. On the whole, religious social conservatives aren’t interested in practical outcomes, however; they’re interested in what they see as moral outcomes, like the abolition of non-procreative sex. They’re not worried that they personally will have to condone homosexuality; they’re upset that *anyone* condones homosexuality. They don’t want to be “entitled” to their own view, they would like you to be obligated to their view. Keep in mind that large numbers of Americans believe that the separation of church and state is a myth cooked up by activist judges, and that the Founding Fathers intended the U.S. to be a “Christian” nation.

    Oh, and of course it’s always been a crock of crap that poor women sit around plotting to get knocked up, because, gee, it’s totally worth physical pain and danger and a lifelong commitment to a child to score a couple hundred bucks a month. It’s always astonished me that anyone could make this argument with a straight face, least of all those “social conservatives” who claim they respect the noble vocation of motherhood so.

  2. Hedda said,

    May 29, 2006 at 12:06

    Nice article and well-written. FYI – There’s a broader definition of relationship recognition in Tasmania. If it can work there, it could work here. Of course there are still many gaps in their Relationship Act of 2004, but it’s a start. And of course, it would never pass in America. I wouldn’t mind living in another country again soon though. If I ever want to go get not-married with someone, maybe I’ll go to Tasmania to do it.

  3. Penelope said,

    June 1, 2006 at 19:28

    I feel strongly about this issue, and have many layers of thoughts on it. I wrote my response, then read it over and imagined Ron reading it and shouting at his computer, “Don’t you have your own blog?”

    Well, yes, I have, and I’m long overdue to update it. If any of y’all are at all interested in all the ideas Ron’s entry sparked in my little brain, check out my response here.

  4. RjZ said,

    June 1, 2006 at 23:18

    Penolope said the same things as I did in her post, but as she’s described above, she’s added many layers to this discussion and her post is well worth reading. I strongly agree with her though. She adds that governments aren’t the only ones who are interested in the financial and filial stability that “marriage” engenders. She holds that our western cultures used to see it this way and that many other cultures still do.

    And it’s an important distinction, because, actually, I struggled with the name of my “partnerships.” Personally, I think the government should get so out of this business that partners should be able to call it whatever they wish. Civil unions sound like a good compromise, but it isn’t really fair to a religious gay couple to be forced to call their holy bond a civil union when another pair may call theirs a marriage simply because they’re more common (and one man and one woman.)

    I know the U.S. religious right finds this view repugnant, but as I said, I am not asking them to call these people anything; I am asking them to stay out of their business if they don’t like it. To quote the bumper sticker I saw recently “If you don’t believe in gay marriage, don’t have one.”

  5. Penelope said,

    June 2, 2006 at 9:35

    I agree that it is only fair that the government refer to everybody’s government-sanctioned union by the same name. It’s ridiculous for the State to lay a holy name on any union–that’s not in its power. It’s even more ridiculous for the State to decide who does and doesn’t get the preferred title.

    As for all of the other layers of connection, I hope we’ll all remember that, just because they’re none of the government’s business, we should freely refer to our loved ones by whatever title–religious, family, or personal–we know them by. If your religion or a personal promise you made says that you’re married, you should still be proud to introduce your wife (whether you’re a man or woman) or husband (likewise). Heck, the government doesn’t care that I have a “best high-school friend,” a couple of “really cool ex-boyfriends,” or a “guitar and frisbee buddy,” but I happily think of and introduce people by those names. The love of one’s life deserves at least as much recognition. We should call the people we love whatever title is meaningful to us, not what the government tells us to.

  6. Traveling Hypothesis » Senate Tackles Gay Marriage Ban, Proposal Backed By President Has Little Chance Of Passing - CBS News said,

    June 5, 2006 at 7:48

    [...] CBS News thinks the senate is ‘tackling’ gay marriage. Ha! What they’re doing is wasting time! Regardless of your views on the marriage rights of U. S. citizens,(you can read some of mine here) unless you’re a member of Focus on the Family, you’d be hard pressed to believe that this is the most important thing on the Senate’s agenda. Not to mention it, thankfully, has little or no chance of passing. [...]

  7. Elena said,

    June 8, 2006 at 14:48

    I did of course agree with the main idea of this discussion immediately. “The government should get so out of this business [marriage]… partners should be able to call it whatever they wish” (R.J). And this was what almost all readers’ comments and even R.J.’s response to Penelope’s comment supported. Great. Everybody agreed, including me! However, something was bothering me in all this, and it took me a little while to realize what it was.
    My problem with all this is following: how is this in any way related to the motivations of poor women to have children outside marriage, or to have children at all? I don’t think there is any relation at all, but it seems to be an interesting topic on its own.
    I haven’t read the book by Kathryn Edin, therefore I can only comment on R.J.’s interpretation of it, so here it goes.
    I don’t doubt that most women have greater motivations for having children, then getting money from the Government. However, good intentions don’t necessarily make this decision on their part the right one. Remember, we’re not talking about those successful single female professionals in their 30s and 40s, who decided to become single moms. Here we’re talking about those who might have ended on welfare even without children. “These women have children because it’s one of the few forms of empowerment they have open to them” – sorry, I don’t buy it! For many reasons, the first and foremost one being, that using a child as the means of your own “empowerment”, the means to be considered an “adult” in your miserable environment, without any regard to this child’s future, probably sentencing the child to the existence, similar to your own – and statistics show this to be the most likely outcome. Of course, they don’t have access to these statistics; otherwise they could’ve at least started to wonder… Because, how can you not?! How can you NOT want something BETTER for your child?
    By one of the definitions “empowerment” means “the restoration to individuals of a sense of their own value and strength and their own capacity to handle life’s problems.” Do you see any of this happening by having a child at the age of 16? I don’t.
    Some claim, motherhood saved them from the life of drugs, crime, etc. Save yourself by different means, master the ability to move beyond fears and limiting beliefs – that’s what empowerment is.

  8. RjZ said,

    June 8, 2006 at 16:08

    The relationship between the government thinking it can decide what is and isn’t marriage and poor single mothers is this: ‘the first line of of the 1996 welfare reform act is “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”’ One of the points I was trying to make is that the government was attempting social tinkering even more than just providing economic protection to it’s citizens. This is fundamentally what often disturbs me about, and what is the hidden dirty secret in, many government programs.

    It was Dr. Edin’s observation that women get pregnant out of empowerment and while I can’t argue with her conclusion, I can agree with Elena that that is terrible news. Their, presumably false, assumption results not only in little empowerment but possibly endangerment of their child.

    Elena makes the point well: motherhood may save them from drugs, crime etc., but at what cost? Surely there are less risky ways to save oneself.

  9. Traveling Hypothesis » Same Bible, different views said,

    May 11, 2012 at 13:45

    [...] before, I am no more for homosexual marriages than heterosexual ones. The government ought to get out of the marriage-business as it is a religious construct which has no place in a government which separates belief from [...]

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