Strengthening Communities One Marriage at a Time
Family North Carolina MagazineMay/Jun 2008
by Alysse ElHage
Bill and Kathy Szatmary of Gastonia, North Carolina, have been through a lot together during their 22-year marriage, including adopting and raising their son, Earl, who came to them as a foster child. Now, they want to take what they have learned about marriage over the past two decades and use it to help mentor younger couples that are considering walking down the aisle. “We have mentors in our schools and even in business. It only makes sense that couples should have mentors in marriage,” says Bill. “Kathy and I have been through a lot of ups and downs, and we want to share our experiences and struggles with younger couples.”1
The Szatmarys are involved in a marriage-mentoring program at St. Michaels Catholic Church that matches older married couples with engaged couples or newlyweds in the congregation. The program is part of a community-wide initiative led by First Things First of Gaston County (FTF-GC) to strengthen marriages and reduce divorce in the area, one couple at a time.
First Things First of Gaston County
Founded in 2004 by local businessman William Seabrook and a group of community leaders, FTF-GC began as an effort to improve the quality of life in Gaston County. Seabrook, who owned a manufacturing company in Gastonia, was always bothered by the area’s high crime and imprisonment rates. When he retired in 2003, he began researching the issue, and found that Gaston County had equally high rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births. He also discovered study after study linking various social ills, including poverty and crime, to single-parent families. “I started digging deeper, and what is behind it is the failure of the familythe lack of healthy marriages,” he says. “Things will continue to get worse if we don’t change the family structure.”2
Through his research, Seabrook came across an organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee, called First Things First. Founded in 1997, First Things First is a community-wide initiative to “rebuild, renew and revitalize” Hamilton County, TN, “beginning with the family.” The non-profit works with community and religious leaders, including over 100 churches in the area, to strengthen marriages through public awareness, education, and mobilization.3 During their first nine years, divorces dropped about 33 percent in Hamilton County.4
“If Chattanooga can reduce divorce, why can’t Gastonia?” Seabrook asked. That question helped launch a community-wide effort to turn the tide on Gastonia’s fragile families and ultimately make Gaston County a better place to live.
Modeled after its namesake and mentor organization in Chattanooga, FTF-GC is involved in a variety of activities, including: holding marriage education retreats and enrichment events; encouraging the participation and support of local clergy; and training and matching mature married couples, like the Szatmarys, with engaged and newlywed couples.5
A Nationwide Movement
The Gaston County marriage initiative is part of a growing national movement to improve the health of communities by strengthening the family first. In 2007, according to Stateline.org, at least 26 states, including North Carolina, won grants from the federal government for marriage education programs under President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative.6 Launched in 2002 by the Administration for Children and Families, the mission of the Healthy Marriage Initiative is to “help couples who have chosen marriage for themselves gain greater access to marriage education services… .”7
In North Carolina, several marriage education programs that are tailored to specific communities received federal grants. These include: East Carolina University in Greenville for a program targeting engaged or married couples in the National Guard; CJH Educational Grant Services in Raleigh for the “Healthy Marriage Matters” program for high school students in Halifax County and surrounding counties; and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for the “Strong Couples-Strong Children” program, which provides marriage education to unmarried pregnant women and expectant fathers.8
In addition to the federal government, many states have instituted efforts to strengthen marriage and families. According to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), “Since the mid-1990s, every state has made at least one policy change or undertaken at least one activity designed to promote marriage, strengthen two-parent families, or reduce divorce.”9
A 2004 study by CLASP found that leaders in 10 states “have publicly focused on marriage related issues,” such as establishing marriage commissions or launching media campaigns. Three states have instituted covenant marriage laws, which give engaged couples the option of getting married under a contract that requires marriage counseling before marriage and prior to divorce, and require specific grounds for divorce. At least 24 other states, including North Carolina, have considered similar laws.10 In addition, six states have programs that either reduce or waive the marriage license fee for couples that attend optional pre-marital counseling.11 According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, at least five states (as of 2003) use Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds for marriage education programs.12
Oklahoma has the nation’s only statewide marriage initiative, which was launched in 1999 by former Governor Frank Keating. In 2000, Governor Keating appropriated $10 million in welfare funds to the program, known as the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI), and it has been funded ever since.13 Since October 2001, the OMI reports that an estimated 100,000 people have completed 12 hours or more of a marriage education course through the initiative.14
The focus on marriage education in the U.S. is driven by the breakdown of the family and the associated consequences. Nationwide, divorce is on the rise and marriage is in decline, while cohabitation (living together outside of marriage) continues to increase, along with out-of-wedlock births. The result is increasingly fragile families, where more children are raised in single-parent households.15 Consider the following national statistics:
- According to the Census Bureau, there were 1.2 million divorces in 2005, and over one million children in the U.S. experience their parent’s divorce each year.16
- More than one-third of all births are out-of-wedlock.17
- More than half of all couples cohabit before marriage.18
- An estimated 40 percent of all children will spend part of their life in a cohabiting household.19
- In 2006, 28 percent of children lived in single parent families, compared to nine percent in 1960.20
North Carolina: According to data from the State Center for Health Statistics, there are an average of 98 divorces per day in North Carolina, with a total of 35,824 divorces and annulments in 2006 alone.21 Forty percent of live births in the state are out-of-wedlock, up from less than 25 percent in 1986.22 According to the latest Census Bureau statistics, 35 percent of children live in single-parent families, and six percent of children live with cohabiting domestic partners in North Carolina.23
Counting the Cost
The increase in single-parent families carries a huge price tag in terms of the human cost, with children experiencing the most damaging effects. Compared to children raised in intact families, children in single parent families are, on average, more likely to experience poverty, do poorly in school, suffer emotional and behavioral problems, and become victims of physical and/or sexual abuse.24 Adolescents raised by divorced or never married parents are more likely to use tobacco, alcohol or illegal drugs. Boys raised by single mothers are more likely to commit crimes, join gangs, and end up in jail. Finally, children raised by single parents have a higher risk of becoming young unwed parents, experiencing unhappy marriages or relationships, and divorcing as adults.25
In addition to the human cost, the rise in single-parent families also has economic consequences. When families break down, the government often must step in to provide support through medical care, food stamps, child support enforcement, and other social services. A 2003 study by former Utah State University professor, David Schramm, estimated that the U.S. spends $33.3 billion annually to address both the direct and indirect consequences of divorce (such as delinquency, poor academic performance, drug use, unwed childbearing, Medicaid, welfare, family support and lost social capital). According to Schramm, the average divorce costs state and federal governments $35,824 per divorce.26 Based on Schramm’s formula (the # of divorces x $35,824), the cost of divorce to North Carolina in 2006 was just over $1 billion.27
A Community Solution
Although North Carolina does not have a state-funded marriage initiative, local initiatives, such as the one in Gaston County, are uniting communities in the effort to reduce the costs associated with single-parent families. “We are collaborating with local counselors, ministers, physicians, educators, anyone who could be on the front line who might deal with people who are coming through some type of crisis in their life… anything that would create stress in a family that, unchecked, could create additional divorce,” explains Joe Davis, chairman of the board at FTF-GC. “We know from the experience in Chattanooga that it takes an entire community to solve this problem.”28
According to Davis, FTF-GC has the support of local business and political leaders, including the Gaston County Board of Commissioners, which has given the organization some funding. In addition, FTF-GC is working to get the support of local magistrates, who perform about 30 percent of the county’s marriages. “Couples simply show up with a marriage license and a fee, and the magistrate by law has to marry them,” he says. “So we are trying to put a little bit of speed bump in there, so that before folks get married, at least call a quick time-out and have them get some basic marital training.”29
Because most marriages are performed in churches, a major focus of the Gaston County initiative is to involve local clergy by encouraging priests and pastors to sign a “Community Marriage Policy/Covenant” (CMP). In Gaston County, ministers who sign the CMP pledge to: require engaged couples to attend premarital training; encourage engaged and married couples to participate in FTC-GC’s marriage education/enrichment programs; and support efforts to reduce divorce in the community. So far, about 35 clergy have signed Gaston County’s CMP.30
In their book, Living Together, Mike and Harriet McManusco-founders of Marriage Savers, who created the first CMP in Modesto, Californiawrite that CMPs “gives church leaders an opportunity to take a public stand for marriage as God’s first institution… .”31 According to Marriage Savers, 10,000 pastors and priests have adopted 220 CMPs in 44 states (including in Cary, Greensboro, Hickory, Wilmington and Winston-Salem, North Carolina).32
Marriage mentoring is another significant ingredient of community marriage initiatives. In 2007, Bill and Kathy Szatmary were one of several local married couples to attend a FTF-GC training seminar for marriage mentors. They will soon be matched with an engaged couple in their church. One piece of advice they plan to share with the couple is the importance of long-term commitment.33
“When we were dating, we discussed that this was going to be it for us, only one trip down the aisle,” Bill says. “But there is no such thing as a perfect relationship. There will be obstacles in the way, and you can choose to do one of two things: face that wall and go over it together, or say, ‘it’s too hard’ and just walk away. Today, a lot of people just walk away.” The Szatmarys are pledging their time and experience to help ensure that more married couples in their community stick it out through the good times and the bad.
A Better Life for Children
FTF-GC has an ambitious set of goals for 2012 that include reducing divorce in the community by 12 percent, single parenting by eight percent, and out-of-wedlock births by four percent. “If FTF-GC is effective in Gaston County, we will create more two-parent responsible families, resulting in a far better quality of life for children,” says Seabrook.
He wants to see Gastonia’s marriage initiative spread beyond the county’s borders and throughout the state. “North Carolina is behind in the effort to strengthen marriages,” he says. “We need to become leaders in protecting our children from the problems created by single parenting, and join the growing number of states that are actively funding marriage education efforts.”
Alysse ElHage is associate director of research for the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
1. Telephone interview with Bill and Kathy Szatmary by author on 3/29/08.
2. Telephone interview with William Seabrook by author on 3/19/08.
3. First Things First, “About Us,” http://firstthings.org/page/about-us/what-is-first-things-first
4. First Things First of Gaston County, “What is Happening at First Things First of Gaston County,” Brochure.
6. Vestal, Christine, “States Adopt Marriage Ed Courses,” Stateline.org, 8/07/07.
7. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Healthy Marriage Initiative: Activities and Accomplishments, 2002-2004, pg. 4.
8. U.S. DHHS, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance, “Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grants,” Region 4 States, available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/ofa/hmabstracts/region4hm.htm
9. Ooms, Theodora, et. al., “Beyond Marriage Licenses: Efforts in States to Strengthen Marriage and Two-Parent FamiliesA State-by-State Snapshot,” Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), April 2004, pg. 10.
10. Ibid. pg. 12.
11. Ibid. Also see: Vestal, Christine, “States Adopt Marriage Ed Courses,” Stateline.org, 8/07/07.
12. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Strengthening Marriage and Two-Parent Families: How are states using TANF funds to implement marriage initiatives?” http://www.ncsl.org/statefed/welfare/strength.htm#funds
13. Op. Cit., CLASP report, pg. 49.
14. ASPE Research Brief, “The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative,” Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. DHHS, December 2006, http://aspe.hhs.gov/hsp/06/OMI/rb.htm
15. Olson, David H. and Amy Olson-Sigg, “Just the Facts: Marriage and Family Facts-2007,” Marriage CoMission, at: www.marriagecomission.com/go/justthefacts.
16. Popenoe, David and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, State of Our Unions, 2007, National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, 2007, pg. 24.
20. State Center for Health Statistics, “Selected Vital Statistics for 2006 and 2002-2006: North Carolina,” North Carolina Vital Statistics, 2006, www.schs.state.nc.us/SCHS/vitalstats/volume1/2006/nc.html
21. State Center for Health Statistics, Vital Statistics, volume 1, 2006, pg. 1-2, http://www.schs.state.nc.us/SCHS/vitalstats/volume1/2006/section1.pdf
22. U.S. Census Bureau, “North Carolina: Selected Social Characteristics of the United States, 2006,” 2006 American Community Survey: North Carolina, www.census.gov.
23. U.S. Census Bureau, 2000 CensusCensus of Population and Housing, Obtained from: NC State Data Center, LINC, at: http://sdc.state.nc.us/
25. Schramm, David, “Individual and Social Costs of Divorce in Utah,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues, Spring 2006: v. 27 (1), pg. 133+.
26. Davis, Joe, “First Things First of Gaston County,” Radio Interview, “Family Policy Matters,” North Carolina Family Policy Council, March 29, 2008.
29. McManus, Mike and Harriet, “Community Marriage Policies,” Living Together: Myths, Risks and Answers, pg. 200.
30. Ibid. pg. 209+.
31. Op. Cit., Bill and Kathy Szatmary interview.
32. Seabrook, William, “Let’s Make a Case for the Children,” First Things First of Gaston County, Memo, Dated June 5, 2007 (updated Feb. 4, 2008).
33. Ibid., also interview with author.
Copyright © 2008. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.