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Frontline: 'Let's Get Married'
With Alex Kotlowitz

Friday, Nov. 15, 2002; 11 a.m. ET

Marriage is in trouble. The past half-century has witnessed staggering changes in the make-up of the American family as the number of single-parent households and children born out of wedlock has skyrocketed. The traditional American family structure has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis. Should we care?

President Bush and a burgeoning marriage movement think so. They’re pushing marriage, especially among the poor. Get people married, the thinking goes, and poverty will be reduced. But is it that simple? Should the government have a role in such an intimate, private institution? Does marriage, in fact, matter? FRONTLINE correspondent and author Alex Kotlowitz explores the biggest demographic mystery of the last half-century, and considers the marriage movement’s attempts to put matrimony at the forefront of the national conversation.

FRONTLINE's "Let's Get Married," airing Thursday, Nov. 14, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), explores the biggest demographic mystery of the last half-century, and considers the marriage movement’s attempts to put matrimony at the forefront of the national conversation. Kotlowitz was online to talk about what he learned on Friday, Nov. 15.

Kotlowitz's most recent book is "The Other Side of the River: A Story of Two Towns, a Death and America's Dilemma" (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday.) He also is the author of the bestselling, award-winning "There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America" (1991). Kotlowitz is a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine and public radio's "This American Life." His articles have also appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, Rolling Stone, The Atlantic and The New Republic. He is a writer-in-residence at Northwestern University, and has been a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame as the Welch Chair in American Studies. Kotlowitz was a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal from 1984 to 1993, writing on urban affairs and social policy. Prior to joining the Journal, he contributed to "The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour, National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition," as well as various magazines. His journalism honors include the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the George Polk Award. He is the recipient of three honorary degrees and the John LaFarge Memorial Award for Interracial Justice given by New York's Catholic Interracial Council.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Berkeley, Calif.: The "pro-marriage" movement, and your program, are doing a disservice to middle class and poor families by allowing a misleading mantra to go unquestioned: "children in two parent families do better." In fact, the research shows that children do better when their parents get along, and they suffer when their parents are at war. Programs should help married couples in difficulty to resolve their problems, and unmarried couples to have better relationships, not focus on pushing unmarried people to get married as if that, in itself, could help them and their children.

Alex Kotlowitz: This is certainly treacherous turf, and there's no question that if kids growing up in families with two parents who are not getting along, or worse yet, with two parents who are involved in an abusive relationship, they would clearly be better off in another situation. While it's important to acknowledge that the research shows that kids generally do better in two-parent families, this does not mean that children raised by single parents are necessarily headed for trouble. In fact, many single parents probably do a better job of raising their children than a lot of married couples.

David Faden: Have you done a study on marriage in affluent American or middle class white areas?

The elephant sitting in the middle of your report is called racism and it seems to me that your report only continues one of the illusions that we live that it is poor and people of color who are destroying our values. This is nothing new -- you can go back to the days of slavery and hear the white slave owners talk about African slaves in the same manner. In those days we lived with the illusion that some people were less human than others and that was one of the justifications for enslaving Africans. Your report, by omitting to note the problem of marriage in the entire society, perpetuates the myth that it is on poor and African people that engage in these immoral and self-destructive behaviors. How about sending Liz Taylor and Donald Trump to a relationship class?

Alex Kotlowitz: We made a very clear decision in this program to talk about the question of marriage and the poor because that at the moment is at the center of the public policy debate. But there's no question that divorce or the large number of single parents is not something unique or particular to the poor or more specifically to the urban poor. In fact, one of the things I heard frequently from couples on Chicago's West side is that they were reluctant to get married because they look at the high divorce rate in the culture around them. The other thing is, and this is from my experience in writing on race and politics for 15 years is that we can be terribly misguided and wrongheaded in talking about the "pathologies" of the poor, when in fact much of what we see in these communities -- the violence, the trouble with marriage as examples -- are really reflections of the larger culture.

Lowell, Mass.: In your research for this show, what did you find as the most common reasons for couples' reluctance to get married?

Alex Kotlowitz: The most common reason was that couples wanted first to have some stability, usually some financial stability, in their lives before they got married.

Missoula, Mont.: As an organizer at Working for Equality and Economic Liberation and helping to create the activist handbook to marriage promotion, we know that any sort of family formation legislation ignores domestic violence, undermines the private choice to marry, discriminates against families and cannot solve poverty. Are you going to make sure to illuminate these facts and explore the ways that the government's short-sighted plan to alleviate poverty will further discriminate against low-income people?

Alex Kotlowitz: It's true that conservatives believe that by getting people married, they're going to lift them out of poverty. They see this as the greatest new anti-poverty tool. And I'm not at all convinced of that. In fact, I remember talking to guy who ran a men's group on the West Side of Chicago who said that if one broke person marries another broke person, all you have are two broke people. This seems to be a critical question in this public policy debate, and that's will marriage lift people out of poverty, or will helping ease the strains in people's lives help them find their way to marriage.

Springfield, Va.: We have become far too complacent about the deterioration of marriage in our society. Marriage is the foundation of our culture and should be treated with respect. I look around and see far too many children being born out of wedlock -- many by choice, rather than from failure to take proper precautions. Increasingly, single women are deciding to have children and raise them alone without benefit of a father in the household. Many of our social problems can be traced to the breakdown of the family and a reduction in the number of two-parent households. Children need a mother and a father who love each other and are committed to each other. I think we are all guilty when we refuse to speak up and say that it's wrong to have children out of wedlock. These days, "anything goes" and we are all so afraid of being politically incorrect or offending someone's feelings that we refuse to speak about against immorality. As a result, our country suffers.

Alex Kotlowitz: It's just this kind of moralizing that drives me crazy. I have a number of friends, single parents who have chosen to raise children on their own and are doing a terrific job at it. I don't know how or why we should complain about somebody who's committed to raising children. I think one thing we have to acknowledge in this whole conversation about marriage is that I don't want in any way to suggest that everyone should or need get married. And the other part of this debate which I suspect will come up is gay marriages. I think that the fact that gays want to participate in this institution is a strong testament to how much we value family in this country, and I would say open the doors. The moralizing and stigmatizing, the intolerance, does little in the end, I think, to help figure out how we strengthen and support families, whatever form they take.

Oklahoma City, Okla.: The problem is that it takes two people to make a good marriage. Many men think marriage means they have a live in slave. Women don't want men like that. Men need to grow up.

Your program didn't address the absence of men in the equation. Women ARE holding together the family now, by themselves. The MEN/FATHERS are the ones acting irresponsibly and not being decent people. Much less people a woman would want to live with.

Until the quality of men improves there is no hope for marriage. If your show even addressed reality a little you would have asked a woman, "How hard is it to find a decent man?" And she would have told you that it was almost impossible.

Alex Kotlowitz: I'm going to answer this indirectly. One of the things we have to be really cautious about in talking about marriage and the place of marriage is that we not become nostalgic for a different era, when things were clearly unequal and women clearly subservient in the relationship. Times have thankfully changed. And you're right -- we need to find and encourage men to become responsible fathers and equal shareholders, if you will, in raising children.

Wheaton, Ill.: I was married to Rev. Al Green, divorced when my children were very young, never married again, reared my five children alone with the help of God and strong family support. All of my children attended or are attending college, my son Joseph Kyles, (a previous marriage) was first black ever elected to President of Tennessee Young Black Democrats; my daughters are currently working on a music project with their father, I did not shut him out, but it was a hard struggle, if you will read your own Washington-Post news of my story,

Marriage is not always the answer, there is so much more that I can share about that issue, take a broader search next time.


Alex Kotlowitz: Again, marriage is not a panacea, nor is it the single answer. As you've testified to, there are many single parents out there, single mothers in particular, who have done heroic work in raising children. And we need to acknowledge that in this country. And again, that's what makes my hair stand on end when I hear people try to stigmatize the notion of being a single parent.

Chicago, Ill.: Why would you use a clip of Al Green singing, when he is three times divorced and does not even support his own children?

Alex Kotlowitz: As for using Al Green, I have a couple of responses. One is our intent was not to explore Al Green's private life, but to use his music, which speaks, I think quite eloquently, to our search for love and happiness. But the other thing I think is important to acknowledge here is that we have to be careful about being sanctimonious in talking about marriage, because the truth of the matter is, a large number of people have been divorced or never been married, or raised children by themselves. That's where we are at the moment, culturally and socially, and there's no denying that. It's interesting to me that in the days preceding this broadcast, a couple of the reporters who were writing about the documentary asked me if I was married. I thought that was an odd question. When I write about race or poverty, no one asks me if I'm black or poor. If I wasn't married, would that make me less qualified to talk about it?

Silver Spring, Md.: I watched Frontline last night, and within the first five minutes, I found out from the head of First Things First that because I'm single (no kids) I am part of the morality problem in this country. When are these marriage mongers going to stop vilifying the single people of this nation? If she thinks I'm out for myself, she should take a look at married couples -- always wanting more tax breaks, always expecting special treatment. It does prove my point, however -- American society HATES single people. How sad.

Alex Kotlowitz: Again, it's that moralizing that makes my hair stand on end. And the irony is that for those who believe so strongly in marriage, their constituency is exactly the people they're vilifying.

Baltimore, Md.: Mr. Kotlowitz seems afraid of totally endorsing the conservative stance and sounding "moralistic." Obviously marriage through history and across cultures has taken many forms, but there seems to be unanimity that the formation of a family with children is too important to leave it solely as a matter of individual choice. Is this not another example of liberals allowing ideological purity to interfere with common sense? Why cannot we liberals just admit how wrong we were?

And a comment: one of the speakers said it is easier to get a divorce than to break a Tupperware contract. Our family recently applied to get a dog from the SPCA; our fitness to raise a dog was evaluated far more thoroughly than our fitness to raise children ever was.

Thank you,

Bill Watkins

Alex Kotlowitz: You know, on the one hand you're right. Marriage, this private institution, has very public consequences. But having said that, how and when would you have government get involved in this most intimate of relationships? The notion of government somehow holding sway over how and if people should get married makes me extraordinarily uncomfortable.

Harrisburg, Pa.: About two decades ago, the number of teen births began an upwards growth in annual numbers. Now, the children of these births are becoming teenagers. Why should we not expect them to view teenage motherhood as the norm to which they are accustomed?

Alex Kotlowitz: One of the issues, of course, is the lack of role models. And that was clearly evident in one part of our filming, when this young lay minister was counseling a young couple who had a child and was considering marriage. And as it turns out, this young lay minister, who was only 22, was in exactly the same situation. He had a child on the way with his girlfriend. I thought that moment in the film spoke volumes to the lack of role models. But the encouraging news, at least on the teenage pregnancy front, is that the level of teenage pregnancy seems to have leveled off, if not declined, in the past 10 years.

Fairfield, Calif.: The reason marriages are no longer working in America is because people are getting married for all the wrong reasons (i.e., money, social status, looks, power, and many other reasons that are not what a marriage is supposed to be based on). There's still only one reason to get married, and that's because you are truly in love with a person!


Alex Kotlowitz: I guess I would say that I'm not convinced that what or how marriage has changed -- I think there are probably plenty of times in our history when people got married for the wrong reasons. The truth is that this is really at the moment a big demographic mystery that we're just beginning to unravel.

Sayre, Pa.: So if the "state" would succeed in raising marriage as the "right thing to do," then what? Would single mothers be forced to marry just because of the children? Would being married make it easier for parents to find work, or make a decent income for their families? Would it become wrong to try to leave an abusive marriage if there were children?

Alex Kotlowitz: I'm not sure that government has a place in this at all -- and certainly it would be terribly, terribly misguided public policy if we somehow tried to coerce people to get married, for all of the reasons that you alluded to.

Columbia, Md.: One of the women profiled in the show had seven children at the age of 26, with three different men. I thought it was interesting that you would choose to profile what for many conservatives would be the absolute best example of what went wrong with welfare. My question is, do you think that the welfare reforms instituted by the last administration and continuing through this one have actually done anything to remedy the problems of the poor? And in your opinion, are the marriage and relationship programs advocated by President Bush worthy of the proposed spending, or would the money be better diverted to other existing or newly developed anti-poverty programs?

Alex Kotlowitz: It's my fear that money will be diverted from much more critically need programs to this marriage effort. For example, there is an extraordinary need for good day care in neighborhoods like the West Side of Chicago. And Ashakai Hankerson is a perfect example of that. There was no adequate day care for her children. And if we're serious about trying to help people find their way out of poverty, we need to reinvest both in community and in family. And so I think this is a terribly important point.

In terms of welfare reform, I think the verdict is still out. But what has me concerned, and I suspect others, is that now as we head into an economic downturn, what is going to happen to those people whose benefits have expired, and for whom employment, because of the lack of available jobs, becomes that much more elusive.

Minneapolis, Minn.: Ashaki Hankerson and Steven Thomas -- are they still thinking about getting married? Is there anyway for me to sent non-perishable item to Ashaki to help?

Alex Kotlowitz: Steve just got out of bootcamp this past weekend, and I spoke to Ashaki last week. She said they still have plans to marry. She is one strong woman. And Steve I think is just a terrific stand-in father for those kids. I wish for them the absolute best.

For those asking about sending donations to Ashaki Hankerson, they can be sent to the following address:

Attn: Laura Longsworth
Ben Loeterman Productions
156 Western Ave.
Boston, MA 02134

Washington, D.C.: One of the things that is never mentioned in the discussion of single parents is that just because a mother is not married, doesn't mean the father can't be involved in a child's life.

I am single with a child but the child's father takes an active role in my child's life. In fact, he is a lot more involved than many fathers who are married to their child's mothers, but hardly do anything in the way of child care.

I think the real issue is to encourage men to be more involved in their children's lives regardless of whether they are married to the mother.

Alex Kotlowitz: Absolutely. In some ways, this marriage conversation is a direct outgrowth of the fatherhood movement of the last 10 years.

Fairfax, Va.: Does marriage offer a benefit to society? My opinion is that it does. It offers a framework whereby the husband and wife become legally accountable for the raising of children. It creates cohesion in society by creating families that tend to look out for each other and for their communities.

The problem (just my point of view) has been the women's movement. Although it has been identified as a liberal movement, it is really very conservative -- the greater the pool of workers, the less they get paid. So in the 1950s and 1960s, husbands would work at a paying job; and wives would focus on creating and maintaining the community. I think of them as the "Leave it to Beaver" days.

That is gone now. I have no idea what the answer is. I do know that marriages are strained by everybody working all the time trying to meet the ever increasing cost of living. I don't see a model anymore. Just a mixture of people living together to pool resources for paying bills.

Alex Kotlowitz: Let's be careful about looking back at different eras with romantic nostalgia. I think that "Leave it to Beaver" era, as you call it, is a much more tangled and complicated one than it might appear. I think you're right to note that particularly when times are tough, as they are at present, that it can put incredible financial strains on families. And that can put a terrible strain on relationships.

Portland, Ore.: I'm a child of divorce and so is my husband. We were together 10-and-a-half years before marrying this past August. We waited because we didn't want to marry for the reasons our parents did -- pregnancy, an escape, etc. Marriage is not an easy "solution" to problems existing in relationships. Without the right foundation you can't have a good marriage, no matter what you do along the way to "fix" it. Trying to get people to marry the minute a child enters the picture rubs me the wrong way.

Have you done any research about population growth vs. increase in welfare dependency in the country in the past 10 years? I would be interested to hear your opinion on that in relation to the marriage issue brought up in your film.

Alex Kotlowitz: If I understand your question correctly, that is whether there's been an incentive for women receiving welfare to have children, I would respond to you by saying that that's a myth. I have yet to meet a woman who has had a child because she was going to receive an additional $100 a month. And in fact, I think you'll find that the average size of families on welfare tend to be much smaller than people think.

Portland, Ore.: As a society you seem to be saying marriage is in decline. Fewer children are experiencing traditional married parents.

Is there anywhere marriage is "working?" My own thoughts are that in more religious communities (e.g. Mormons) that there are more traditional marriages and families.

Is the breakdown of marrying due to a breakdown of religious attitudes in general?

Alex Kotlowitz: I would be inclined to say no, because in fact the highest divorce rates today are in the Bible Belt. In fact, Oklahoma, which is often referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, has the second-highest divorce rate in the nation. And you couldn't ask for a more religous state than Oklahoma.

Blue Ash, Ohio: If Oklahoma has the second highest divorce rate in the country, who has the first? I am assuming Las Vegas.

Alex Kotlowitz: It's Nevada. So you're right.

Centreville, Va.: Do you think our society is just becoming more self-centered and marriage just takes too much compromising?

Alex Kotlowitz: The answer is, I think we've always been a highly individualized society. Whether we're more so than we were 50 years ago, I'm not sure I can speak to.

Bellefontaine, Ohio: So, what's your opinion -- are the conservatives right?

Alex Kotlowitz: Yes and no. The conservatives are right to point out this very private institution, marriage, has very public consequences. But I think that they're misguided to think that marriage will lift people out of poverty. Or that somehow marriage is a panacea to society's ills. I'm also not convinced that government has a place in all this. And even if it did, even if we could agree on that, I'm not sure that government, in the end, could be terribly effective.

Pensacola, Fla.: What is the answer then? It seems like although we know this is something (marriage) that has to be valued again to turn our community back to some sort of solid foundation that holds in good times as well as hard times.

Alex Kotlowitz: I don't know. But what is encouraging is that there is this large amalgam of social scientists, both right and left, who are now deep into exploring issues around family and family formation.


That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.

© Copyright 2002 The Washington Post Company