This past legislative session Oklahoma passed HB 1908 into law. HB 1908 authorized the use of ‘welfare’ or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds to be spent on an ad campaign promoting marriage. TANF is a program that provides a range of support services to very low income single parent families with children. The proponents of the bill argue that marriage is effective at fighting poverty, therefore public service announcements (PSAs) promoting marriage are an appropriate use of TANF resources.
Let’s set aside for a moment the question of whether or not marriage actually does reduce poverty, which is not at all clear. Let’s also set aside whether or not it’s wise to divert resources from services that directly feed, clothe, house, and care for very low income children. Instead let’s ask a more basic question: can PSAs create more marriages? We found no evidence that they can. This post outlines three reasons why marriage PSA are a bad idea.
1. There is no evidence that they work
Can commercials really change the outcome of a decision so intimate and fundamental to each of our lives as deciding to marry? There’s no evidence that they can. Despite talk in the early 2000s about a handful of states and jurisdictions (e.g. Virginia, Louisiana, Washington, Grand Rapids and Chattanooga) developing marriage promotion PSAs, there’s scant evidence that most of them ever actually aired campaigns. And among those that did, no summary reports or independent evaluations of their performance were ever produced.
In fact, none of the initiatives included in a federal push to promote marriage as a cure for poverty have worked. According to recent research by the Department of Health and Human Services, “a federal initiative to promote marriage as a cure for poverty dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that either had no impact or a negative effect on the relationships of the couples who took part.”
Commercials aren’t even consistently effective at selling fruit rollups – why would we expect them to effectively sell a life-long commitment? And even if the PSAs did ‘work’, you can’t run out and get married unless you’re already in a healthy relationship. Unlike fruit rollups, you won’t find a quality life-partner on the shelves at your local grocer.
To assert that a 30-second radio spot can turn single adults into committed pairs is naïve at best, insincere at worst. HB 1908 should raise the eyebrows of even the staunchest advocates of government sponsored marriage-promotion. Because instead of devising a strategy of substance, lawmakers opted for a token gesture that’s in line with their principled position on marriage, but won’t produce any return on the taxpayers’ investment.
2. They reach people in abusive and dysfunctional marriages too
Oklahomans who experience abuse at the hands of their spouse will inevitably be exposed to these messages, and lecturing them about the sacred nature of their eternal union borders on reckless. One of the law’s authors, Senator David Holt, dismissed these concerns: “I don’t think a PSA is going to force someone to stay in an unsafe situation.” But the truth is that social norms do keep many in ‘unsafe’ marriages by reinforcing the notion that marriage is forever and they need to make it work.
Social, religious and cultural norms condition victims (who often already blame themselves for the abuse) into believing that maintaining the façade of a good marriage is better than the shame and embarrassment of a failed marriage and the judgement of their community or church family. If this ad campaign reinforces that fear and shame for even one person trapped in a violent or terminally dysfunctional marriage, it’s too many.
3. They grow government’s say in your most intimate decisions
The lawmakers who pushed HB 1908 through the state house are fond of railing against government overreach. They are adamant that the federal government has no place in your health care choices, no business setting standards for your children’s education, and little responsibility to keep your air clean and your water drinkable. ‘Personal responsibility and limited government’ is Speaker Shannon’s mantra. This new law stands in stark contrast and represents a dramatic overreach of state government’s say in the lives of its residents.