The first lady can help kids by encouraging marriage the way she has by encouraging exercise.
The Wall Street Journal: January 14, 2013
By ABBY W. SCHACHTER
As Barack Obama approaches his second term, there has been much discussion about new goals the president should set for the next four years. But what about the first lady?
Michelle Obama must also be drawing up plans to build on a first term devoted to promoting healthy eating and the greater well-being of American children. Her "Let's Move" campaign to encourage exercise has probably done some good for young people, but there is an even better message the first lady could promote—one likely to have an even longer-lasting and more significant effect on the lives of young people and on society in general: "Let's Marry."
The facts speak for themselves. Today in America, 26% of children are raised by a single parent, including 72% in the black community. Among poor families with children, 71% are headed by single parents, mostly single mothers.
The economics are plainly better for married couples with children—their joint income averages $80,000, while single mothers average $24,000. And getting out of poverty from a single-parent situation isn't easy. A 2010 Pew report found that "among children who start in the bottom third of the income distribution, only 26% with divorced parents move up to the middle or top third as adults, compared to 50% of children with continuously married parents."
The evidence in favor of marriage is so clear that it is one subject on which liberals and conservatives agree. On the left, Washington Post columnist Clarence Page noted in December: "Children who live with their biological parents perform better in school, have lower rates of suicide, earn more as adults and are less likely to get pregnant or arrested, various studies have found. Marriage also brings economic benefits, such as two breadwinners or a full-time stay-at-home parent that offer more time and resources to support good parenting."
Robert Rector at the conservative Heritage Foundation sounded a similar theme in 2010: "Compared to children raised in an intact family, children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to have emotional and behavioral problems; be physically abused; smoke, drink, and use drugs; be aggressive; engage in violent, delinquent, and criminal behavior; have poor school performance; and drop out of high school."
Isabel Sawhill of the liberal Brookings Institution also extols the benefits of lifelong unions. She doesn't think government should get into the business of promoting marriage, but she does say that "adult leaders sending a message" is valuable—especially if the message goes out to the young: "What should we say to younger people who haven't made these decisions yet . . . is that it is better for them and their future kids if they find a stable committed relationship before they have kids."
That's where Mrs. Obama comes in. And Mr. Obama.
W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, notes that "the Obamas have gone the distance in their marriage, and they could encourage more of their fellow citizens to follow in their footsteps for the sake of kids across this great country of ours. The president could also support efforts to make federal welfare and tax policy more marriage-friendly."
In 2008, President Obama sounded a similar note during a speech on Father's Day, advocating for changing the tax code to support married couples.
But are we likely to see a "Let's Marry" campaign originating in the White House? If that is going to happen, the Obamas are going to have to get over "Julia."
Remember the composite female voter named Julia? She starred in "The Life of Julia," an online storytelling tool that seemed to be one of the 2012 Obama campaign's more effective weapons. As we learned by following the tale, Julia was helped along throughout her life by an array of government programs and handouts. Julia did have a child, but what Julia didn't have was a husband.
Surely the Obamas care about the health and well-being of America's children as much as they say they do. The president and first lady also no doubt know that their own union is the source of strength and success for each other and their children. If Mr. and Mrs. Obama want to send a valuable message to young people about the benefits of marriage, a good first step would be to move away from a vision of the country with government as paterfamilias.
Ms. Schachter is a regular contributor to the pop-culture blog Acculturated.com.