Lyons: No bliss in feds' marriage initiative


Anyone who isn't convinced that the president in office has an effect on your life at home ought to take a gander at the latest federal grant to come down the pike.

The Native American Healthy Marriages Initiative, managed by the Administration for Native Americans, is funding ''projects that include approaches to improve child well-being by removing barriers associated with forming healthy marriages [including traditional Native American marriages].'' If you weren't aware of any particular ''barriers'' between you and marital bliss, or how ''traditional Native American marriages'' might differ from other marriages, join the club.

But let's give this program a closer look, because it purports to help children. NAHMI is the Indian version of the larger Healthy Marriages Initiative operated by the Administration for Children and Families, whose overall goal is to ''improve child well-being by helping those who choose marriage for themselves to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages.'' What exactly is a healthy marriage? ''There are at least two characteristics that all healthy marriages have in common. First, they are mutually enriching, and second, both spouses have a deep respect for each other.''

That seems obvious, but what's the endgame? There's a list of ''Benefits of Healthy Marriages'' on the HMI Web site, all of them attributed to a source called ''Why Marriage Matters: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences'' (2005) released by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute of American Values, a think tank based in New York. One immediately discovers from the executive summary that this report isn't really about marriage per se, but specifically ''poor and minority ones.'' It's basically geared toward getting poor people of color to marry each other.

If this weren't problematic enough, consider the report's ''five new themes in marriage-related research.'' First, ''though marriage has lost ground in minority communities in recent years, marriage has not lost its value in those communities.'' Second, ''marriage benefits poor Americans and Americans from disadvantaged backgrounds, even though these Americans are now less likely to get and stay married.'' Less likely than whom? One wonders why these claims wouldn't apply to the population as a whole given this country's soaring divorce rate.

The third theme gets to the real point of the report: ''Marriage seems to be particularly important in civilizing men, turning their attention away from dangerous, antisocial, or self-centered activities and towards the needs of a family.''

Excuse me, but did you just suggest that men of color are uncivilized? Indeed they did, on top of ''dangerous,'' ''antisocial'' and ''self-centered.'' The report's fourth theme elaborates these ideas in a manner I can only describe as bizarre: ''Marriage influences the biological functioning of adults and children in ways that can have important social consequences. For instance, marriage appears to drive down testosterone levels in men, with clear consequences for their propensity to aggression.''

One can only surmise why marriage would drive down testosterone levels, or what a biologist might say about that. My question is this: Are we equally concerned with the testosterone levels of other men, say, aggressive stock traders or the paladins orchestrating the war on terrorism? (Come to think of it, many of them are married too, with no perceivable effect on their testosterone levels.) I submit that this report does not consider all testosterone is created equal. Rather, it rehearses stereotypes of gangbangers and drug lords - the brown-skinned variety - exhibiting little concern with testosterone and aggression in general.

Finally, ''Why Marriage Matters'' sums up its ''findings'' with one last, resounding theme: ''The relationship quality of intimate partners is related to both their marital status and ... to the degree to which these partners are normatively committed to marriage. So, claims that love, not marriage, is crucial to a happy family life do not hold up.''

So much for those mutually enriching, respectful, satisfying relationships described in that two-part definition. Love won't keep your family together and isn't even the reason for tying the knot. The purpose of marriage is to be married. Why? Because it lowers the testosterone levels of aggressive men of color and civilizes them. What this has to do with the well-being of children is anyone's guess.

NAHMI is funded to the sum of $2 million, which is the same amount provided for another ACF Indian program that really would improve the lives of children and families: child care grants. We could definitely use more subsidized child care in Native America, so why are there only two grants available for child care but 16 for the wedding planners?

The answer has everything to do with the two fundamentalisms that govern our lives these days. Religious fundamentalism is obsessed with making sure that women don't have sex out of wedlock, while market fundamentalism preaches that the ''free market'' will provide everything we need. Neither is interested in seeing governments help families or, God forbid, single mothers take care of their children, because that would undermine their agendas.

Meanwhile, we're increasingly mired in what Ruth Rosen calls the ''Care Crisis'': a society that leaves the expensive and time-consuming care of children, elderly and the sick to working women who have pitifully fewer resources available to them. In a recent article in The Nation, Rosen wrote, ''Universal health care, paid parental leave, high quality subsidized on-the-job training and community child care, a living wage, job training and education, flexible work hours and greater opportunities for part-time work, investment in affordable housing and mass transit, and the reinstatement of a progressive tax structure would go a long way toward supporting working mothers and their families.'' Instead, our tax dollars are spent on dubious lectures about the sanctities of marriage given to irresponsible po' colored folk.

HMI, including our Indian version, is explicitly targeted to ''faith-based and community organizations,'' but let's not kid ourselves here. Community organizing is taking a back seat to faith these days, and the result is not stronger faith, but weaker communities. HMI is about advancing the agendas of those two fundamentalisms, and the ''Great White Father'' is right there with both of them. When it comes to courting fundamentalists, the president is a bigamist. When it comes to taking care of America's children, he's a deadbeat dad.

Scott Richard Lyons, Leech Lake Ojibwe, directs the Center for Indigenous Studies at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, N.Y., and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.