When Washington declared war on “welfare as we know it” in the 1990s, it also embarked on a battle to save an age-old institution. Lawmakers coupled efforts to shrink public assistance with a campaign to promote marriage, in hopes that getting women hitched would generate economic stability. In reality, the government’s marketing of marriage as a poverty reduction tool was a strike at a perceived social crisis: the Black single mother.
Congress has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that coach women on how to snag husbands and build nuclear families. Critics see such measures as cultural bigotry, ignorant of women’s economic and emotional realities, as well as the structural barriers that make it hard to settle into a traditional two-parent household. The Alternatives to Marriage Project has debunked the supposed link between marriage and prosperit and cautions that marriage boosterism could lead women to become trapped in abusive relationships.
These days, the cultural battleground of marriage has shifted: the right, alarmed by the prospect of equality for non-heterosexual couples, strives to defend marriage from promoters of “alternative lifestyles.”
Yet the decline of the Leave-it-to-Beaver model hasn’t tempered the zeal of the marriage crusaders. In February, the federal government launched a $5 million campaign to encourage 18 to 30 year-olds to dream of tying the knot.
The Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board argues that despite the budget crisis, the Obama administration should preserve funding for welfare-based marriage programs, because “this federally funded training—which aims to improve communication skills—may prepare more couples for married life beyond love at first sight and may save many couples from resorting to divorce.”
Marriage promotion has garnered some support within Black communities as well, as a touchstone for discussions on fostering stability and middle-class aspirations. This week, National Public Radio featured Los Angeles entrepreneur Fleace Weaver—whose “Free your Mind” campaign encourages Black women to snag marriageable men through interracial dating—as a woman “fighting the odds” of a supposedly marriage-averse Black America.
But what’s marriage really worth? Black Scientist argues that the institution of marriage primarily enforces cultural hierarchy:
Through its unfair treatment of queer sexualities and domesticities, the nation-state has essentially transformed civil rights into privileges, granted to citizens based on the assumption of performed heterosexuality…
My point is that queering the black agenda (and the national agenda) is necessary. There are privileges that many queer American families are being excluded from, and like it or not this includes black families. The right to see your loved one in the hospital should not be contingent on sexual preference nor marriage status. The partners of single (black) mothers should be able to claim the child on their employer health insurance…. These are rights that are kept not only from queer people of all colors, but also from nonqueer people who do not reap the benefits of acting as a nuclear family.
The tone of the marriage debate has evolved over the years, but the underlying proposition remains unchanged. Matrimony as public policy pits a moral framework—based on white, heterosexual middle-class ideals—against everyone who falls outside the “norm,” be it on racial, sexual or gender lines.
Lawmakers today are wedding the culture wars with social policy like never before: anti-abortion groups clamor to steer healthcare reform away from contemporary family needs; LGBT families continue to be demonized for pursuing equal rights; and conservatives rail against the expansion of public benefits for the undeserving (read: poor people of color).
The idea of marriage threads through all these struggles as an instrument for distributing power and privilege, and disenfranchising deviant groups. The communities who have been defined out of the marriage paradigm may share more common ground than they think. It could be the foundation of a movement to build a healthier kind of union, which embraces queerness in all its forms.