Teaching Marriage to Welfare Moms When President Bush announced in 2001 that his administration was going to devote $1.5 billion to promote marriage, his critics said the initiative was one more way the president was trying to advance the cause of his conservative supporters. In the first of a series of reports on teaching marriage skills, Alix Spiegel profiles an Oklahoma program for women on welfare.
NPR logo

Teaching Marriage to Welfare Moms

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4822068/4822069" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Teaching Marriage to Welfare Moms

Teaching Marriage to Welfare Moms

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/4822068/4822069" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick. We'll have more on the storm later in the program.

First, this. Among social scientists, there's an idea that you can teach people how to be better married and that these lessons actually improve the likelihood of successful, lasting relationships. The Bush administration believes this idea and strongly backs marriage education, asking for $1 1/2 billion through its Healthy Families Initiative. The administration says marriage education classes can also cut poverty. Federal officials and many researchers see marriage as a force that stabilizes a family's emotional and economic life.

DAY TO DAY is featuring reports on marriage education this week, and we begin with NPR's Alix Spiegel in Oklahoma, where a four-year-old state program requires that some women on welfare take a marriage education course.

ALIX SPIEGEL reporting:

To introduce his theory of loving relationships, instructor Tony Russell pulls a slide from the folder on his desk and carefully positions it on the class projector. The image is a close-up of a pot on a stove, a boiling pot covered by a frothy white foam that seems ready to bubble over at any moment.

Mr. TONY RUSSELL (Instructor): This is a boiling pot.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, yeah.

Mr. RUSSELL: OK? You know, all those chemicals are going. They're flowing. And what's the problem here that--with a boiling pot like this?

SPIEGEL: The eight women in the room consider the slide in silence. They seem uncertain about how the picture of the boiling pot will help them to improve their relationships. And so Russell jumps in.

Mr. RUSSELL: Can you see what's cooking in here?

Unidentified Woman #2: No.

Unidentified Woman #3: No.

SPIEGEL: The boiling pot, Russell explains, is a metaphor for the dangers of infatuation. When passion runs hot, it's impossible to discern what lies beneath the surface. Foam could mask a nurturing meal or a pot of poison, which is why it's so important to be on guard whenever Cupid's arrow strikes.

Mr. RUSSELL: We're not talking about right or wrong here, that infatuation's wrong, OK? What we're talking about is about how we make decisions during this time, OK? And...

Unidentified Woman #4: It's hard.

Mr. RUSSELL: Yeah, it's hard. It's hard. So...

SPIEGEL: Twelve hours over two days, minus breaks, minus lunch. That's the amount of time that Tony Russell has to teach the eight women sitting before him how to create a productive relationship, preferably a productive relationship that ends in marriage. And it's clear almost from the beginning that this will be difficult work. Few of the women in the room have the benefit of a good example, married parents that stayed together, and only one is currently in a committed relationship that she describes as healthy.

And so Russell starts at the beginning: how to select a mate. He passes out a photocopy, a 29-item checklist that clearly catalogs what information the women should have about a potential partner before they decide to move forward with a relationship.

Mr. RUSSELL: Number one, a good sense of my partner's relationships with friends. And so you would circle the things underneath that decision that you would want to consider prior to making that decision.

SPIEGEL: How does he treat his family? Do I feel emotionally safe? Is my partner drug-free? Simple questions which, Russell says, too often go unasked, which leads him to one of the central concepts of the class.

Mr. RUSSELL: And it's a concept that we're going to be using and building on, and that is called sliding vs. deciding.

SPIEGEL: The women will hear this phrase again and again over the course of their 12 hours. The theory is that part of the problem with the way that they have lived their lives, part of the reason that they're now sitting in the chilly offices of Health and Human Services, is that too often they have chosen to close their eyes and follow their hearts, slide into relationships without properly evaluating the person to whom they are tying their fate.

And so Russell tries to make it easy. He gives them another handout. This one describes what he calls decision points, critical moments where it would be best to stop and think before making a commitment that could later hurt them.

Mr. RUSSELL: What about deciding to say `I love you,' the decision whether or not to move in together, or the decision to have sex or not?

Unidentified Woman #5: I have to make a decision on that? I thought that just happens.

Unidentified Woman #6: Yeah. That's when you say you love them for the first time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SPIEGEL: They might make jokes, but over the lunch break it becomes clear that sliding isn't simply an abstraction to these women. Most of them know exactly what Tony Russell is talking about. Take Cindy Tubbey(ph). Tubbey first met the father of her children when she was 14 years old--he was a friend of her mother's boyfriend--but didn't see him again until her mid-20s, when he reintroduced himself to her in an unconventional way.

Ms. CINDY TUBBEY (Marriage Education Participant): I was going down the road and he just cuts me off, wants me to pull over. So I pulled over. He says, `Do you know who I am?' I said, `Yes, I do.' And I went to this party; he was there; we started talking. And the next weekend I went another party; he was there, started talking again. So three weeks later, he comes to my house, and that's when he moved in.

SPIEGEL: Within four months, Tubbey was pregnant, and two months after that, her partner went to jail, which, in a way, wasn't bad, better than the constant abuse.

Ms. TUBBEY: Anytime he started arguing, I would just shut my mouth. Go ahead, vent, do what you got to do. I'm not saying nothing because I'm not going to let it escalate to where it's going to come to blows.

SPIEGEL: As Tubbey talks, the woman sitting next to her eyes her wearily, then sighs with a kind of recognition.

Ms. AMBER CARR(ph) (Marriage Education Participant): I'm leaving it up to God. That's all I have.

SPIEGEL: Like Cindy Tubbey, Amber Carr is in her late 30s and was recently abandoned by an emotionally abusive husband. Unlike Tubbey, Carr does not feel that she can learn much from Russell's class, the handouts and slides that encourage her to take control of her life.

Ms. CARR: I was raised to where the men did what they wanted and said what they wanted, and you just kept quiet. You do what your husband says, and that's it.

SPIEGEL: Carr is asked if she feels like she's seen a good marriage.

Ms. CARR: I don't really know.

SPIEGEL: A woman sitting across the table, Ro Arigo(ph), asks Carr how she feels about her husband after sitting through three hours of marriage education class.

Ms. CARR: I want him back.

Ms. RO ARIGO (Marriage Education Participant): Why?

Ms. CARR: Because he's all I know.

SPIEGEL: `But will it be healthy?' Ro Arigo asks, using the language that she has heard all morning from Tony Russell. Amber Carr looks at her evenly and then answers.

Ms. CARR: Probably not.

SPIEGEL: The women finish eating and carry their lunches to the trash as Tony Russell comes back into the room and slaps another slide on the projector. He waits until everyone settles, and then he resumes the lesson.

Mr. RUSSELL: Complaining and griping, being heard, not ignored.

SPIEGEL: Having dispatched the question of how to select a mate, part two of marriage education class focuses on communication skills, how to manage conflict in a relationship and argue without destroying love.

Mr. RUSSELL: OK, so this next technique is just an effective way to communicate your concerns. And we call this XYZ statements. I felt sad. I felt mad. The key here is that you're talking about yourself.

SPIEGEL: The women will learn XYZ statements. They will learn how to avoid escalation and the ground rules of the speaker-listener technique. And as the afternoon wears on, their enthusiasm mounts. Perhaps the government will be able to teach them, will be able to reverse generations of divorce. Most seem eager to learn because it's at least a chance. And towards the end of the second day, a woman named Anne Ward(ph) interrupts Russell to tell him how much she appreciates this information. She says she thinks that there would be less divorce if everyone would think about these issues more.

Ms. ANNE WARD (Marriage Education Participant): I do believe if more people had pre-marriage counseling...

Unidentified Woman #7: Or even a class like this.

Ms. WARD: Right. If it was mandatory, we wouldn't have near as many, because people would actually have to stop and think about why they're getting into this relationship.

SPIEGEL: Two of her classmates chime in.

Unidentified Woman #8: I don't think I would have went through the relationship I went through.

Unidentified Woman #9: I wouldn't, either. I wouldn't have got married the first time.

SPIEGEL: This is perhaps not the sentiment that the government intended to foster in its education class to promote marriage. But Tony Russell nods to accept the compliment all the same. Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

CHADWICK: Tomorrow, the scientific research that launched marriage education.

I'm Alex Chadwick. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.