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The federal deficit this year is expected to reach almost half a trillion dollars. The president's centerpiece education initiative, the "No Child Left Behind Act," is not being fully funded. At least 37-million Americans are without health insurance. Yet, President Bush wants the nation to spend $1.5-billion to promote marriage.

Beyond giving the president a campaign issue that will please conservative voters, the healthy marriage initiative is unlikely to do much good. The stresses and difficulties facing most low-income couples won't be resolved through a few counseling sessions or government-sponsored billboards promoting marriage. The money could be far better spent investing in education, job training, child care, health services and transportation _ the services millions of couples truly need to lighten their load.

Bush's marriage initiative has everything to do with politics. It was designed by administration staff with significant input from Christian conservative groups, and much of the money is expected to land in the coffers of religiously affiliated organizations through the president's faith-based initiatives.

Millions of dollars in marriage-initiative money has already been disbursed to the states. Florida's Department of Children and Families (DCF) has received $1.7-million in federal money for three marriage-strengthening programs. Gov. Jeb Bush and DCF Secretary Jerry Regier have been encouraging faith-based groups to get a piece of these funds coming out of Washington. In October, Regier moderated a session on promoting healthy marriages at the governor's second conference on faith-based and community initiatives.

While there is no dispute that strong marriages are beneficial to children and society at large, government programs are unlikely to turn dysfunctional families into stable units. The money is expected to go to promarriage billboards, marriage promotion campaigns and counseling services in which low-income couples will be taught conflict management, coping and listening skills. But most low-income men and women don't have many choices for a responsible marriage partner, and poverty-stricken couples have huge hurdles to overcome that have much more to do with the difficulty of getting by than whether they can talk openly with one another about appropriate child rearing.

Any extra billions lying around should go to address joblessness, poor housing, access to health care, dependable child care or transportation. Those are the kind of issues that keep low-income families off balance and in crisis.

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