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Let's keep marriage in the family

President Bush's proposal to spend $1.5-billion for the promotion of "healthy marriages" is, at one level, a matter of babies and bathwater.

There's precious little the government can do to strengthen existing marriages or to encourage new ones, as the president surely knows. The only pragmatic purpose I can see for his idea is that it might please his supporters on the religious right _ particularly if he yields to their pressure to define healthy marriages as traditional marriages. No gays or lesbians, thank you.

That is tired and tepid political bathwater, and, not surprisingly, people who fancy themselves more socially aware than the president are demanding that it be tossed out the door.

But wait: There's a baby in there that deserves more attention than some of us have been willing to pay.

The president's proposal may not be entirely serious, but the state of marriage in America is. And when marriage is in trouble, the society is in trouble.

Take, for instance, the sacrifices that are necessary to raise the kind of healthy, happy and competent children we want. These sacrifices are almost always unequal between husband and wife. They are tolerable only if marriage is accepted as a permanent arrangement.

Marriage has always been a way of tying fathers to their offspring. But we've come to believe that this is no longer necessary because women (in economic terms, at least) no longer require the commitment of the fathers of their children. When dads become superfluous, it becomes more difficult for men and boys to see useful social roles for themselves. Too often, young males become threats to communities that might once have considered them assets.

This is particularly true in America's inner cities. The decline in marriage might have begun with the decline in the number of eligible (meaning employed) men. But it accelerated when we abandoned the notion of "illegitimacy" and _ in effect _ declared marriage irrelevant to families.

If low-income women often opt out of marrying the men available to them ("I can do bad by myself"), middle-income women often opt out for the opposite reason: I can do just fine by myself. Even if there are children.

Some of the things lost when marriage declines are obvious. Others are more subtle _ for example, the value to young couples of having two sets of parents on tap for emergency financial help and two distinct groups of people who can hear and pass on information about jobs or other opportunities.

Educators know that children from two-parent households tend to perform better, both because there are likely to be more assets at home and less stress on the parents.

And, of course, there is the undeniable fact that the absence of a second income can move a family toward poverty.

About 10 years ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation reported a study that compared two groups of Americans _ those who graduated from high school, reached age 20 and got married before having their first child, and those who didn't. Only 8 percent of the children of the first group were living in poverty a few years later. For the children of those in the second group, the rate was 79 percent, nearly 10 times as high.

Marriage does matter, and I wish the president's proposal didn't treat it so cynically.

But the rest of us had better get serious about doing what we can to restore marriage: by celebration, by exhortation, by making the workplace more accommodating to marriage, and by creating the jobs that can make marriage a realistic option.

William Raspberry is a Washington Post columnist.

Washington Post Writers Group