Budget Bonanza: Federal Money for Marriages

WASHINGTON — Can federal money help your marriage?

The Deficit Reduction Act passed Feb. 1 by the U.S. Senate is being hailed for providing $100 million a year for five years to help strengthen marriages.

The funds will be used for grants to non-governmental initiatives strengthening marriage and $50 million a year over the same period for responsible- fatherhood programs.

Catholic marriage educators already are brainstorming about how to tap into the money to promote a wide variety of programs.

“We’re very excited about it,” says Steve Bierne, president of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers in Dayton, Ohio. “It’s a very good investment. Strong families are the best social security system there is.”

Women and children fare much better in a two-parent family, he added, “and the children have lower crime rates and better education than otherwise. The government will just have to spend the money later on different programs for the same people if it doesn’t spend it on this.”

In charge of the new federal funds will be Wade Horn, assistant secretary for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Horn is already a hero in the marriage education movement’s eyes because he has been squeezing money from existing budgets for pilot projects promoting marriage.

Horn will be keynote speaker at the SmartMarriages Conference in Atlanta in June. He said the bill for the first time provides dedicated federal funds so couples “can learn the skills to form and sustain healthy marriages.”

Diane Sollee, the founder/organizer of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples of Washington, D.C., predicted the federal money would shake loose matching state grants. The SmartMarriage conference, which runs right after the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers conference, will offer training in grant-proposal writing from both sources.

One project which already received federal funding is a pre-marriage course for unmarried black mothers and fathers in inner-city Chicago. It has been given since last summer by Andrew and Terri Lyke in conjunction with the Chicago archdiocesan family life ministry and the state of Illinois.

Lyke, who is marriage ministry coordinator for the archdiocese, said people who take the course “are people who do not see marriage as doable. They do not see it working for others, and as for themselves, they are waiting for the sky to crack open and the love of their life to come through.”

The Lykes talk about their own experience with the ups and downs of marriage to present a more realistic picture.

“We teach them communication and relationship skills and tell them that there is no special someone who will bring bliss,” Lyke said. “They should remove ‘bliss’ from their lexicon. Marriage is about commitment, a commitment worth making in front of the community, spiritually and publicly sanctioned.”

Lower Divorce Rate

Lyke said the federal funding is “a great thing,” especially for favoring programs that do what his does — make marriage education available to the marginalized.

“This is not a population the Church normally would ever reach through the local parish’s pre-Cana course,” he said.

The Lykes, both Catholics, stress that happiness is not the goal of marriage, though it may be a result. “Life will still have tragedy,” he said. “Marriage helps us deal with tragedy but it isn’t doable without faith.”

Ralph Johnson helps run the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program, which has been going for 15 years and has spread to five states in the Southwest from its beginnings in Albuquerque, N.M. He calls it “a life-formation process” taught by non-professional couples who teach from their own experience. The program includes a pre-marriage component, a one-day retreat and an enrichment weekend for married couples, followed by support-group meetings of four or five couples each. Two parishes that have delivered the full program to more than 1,000 couples over the past 25 years report a divorce rate of 10%, much lower than the national average.

Johnson said his organization is being encouraged by local federal officials to join with or form a broad-based coalition of organizations in order to qualify for the funding. Local Catholic Charities, because it already provides non-denominational services, might qualify as the umbrella organization receiving a global family support grant.

“The federal government wants to turn over larger grants to these coalitions and leave the parcelling of it out to them,” said Johnson.

The Marriage Enrichment Weekend program would hire an executive director with the money and launch the program nationwide.

One marriage promoter said he was staying away from federal funding, however.

“If you take someone’s money, they end up telling you what to do,” said Redemptorist Father Rob Ruhnke, a priest in San Antonio, Texas, and author of the For Better and Forever workbook.

Father Ruhnke’s self-published book provides him the money for his ministry, which is to help parishes start marriage-mentoring programs based on the book. These involve happily married couples helping an engaged couple go through the workbook.

Bierne and his wife, Kathy, are already spending federal money to get all the clergy in their hometown of Portland, Maine, to adopt a community marriage policy. Under this agreement, which prevails now in 150 cities, all of a town’s clergy agree to require four months of pre-marital training, including an inventory. The inventory identifies areas in which a couple are seriously at odds, such as children or finances.

“A number of Catholic family-life ministries have already received federal funding,” Bierne said. “We are very well placed because we are so well organized at the parish and diocesan level and are already delivering programs.”

What’s more, the federal government has made marriage programming for the poor, immigrants and refugees a priority, a large proportion of whom are Catholics, Bierne said. But Catholics shouldn’t feel uncomfortable about delivering marriage programs even to non-Catholics.

Said Bierne, “We are called to build up all families.”

Steve Weatherbe is based in

Victoria, British Columbia.