John Stemberger: Incentives to prepare for marriage good policy

  • by: John Stemberger 03/25/09

Amazingly, Orlando Sentinel columnists George Díaz and Scott Maxwell have mocked, belittled and cleverly misrepresented the efforts of the Florida Family Policy Council in its statewide Strong Marriages Florida campaign.

First, the current law enacted under former Gov. Lawton Chiles sets marriage-license fees at $93.50 with the option of getting a $32.50 discount if the couple obtains four hours of pre-marital education. This is not much of an economic motivation, which is why most couples do not take advantage of the counseling.

The proposed bill we are supporting would increase the $93.50 fee by $100 with the option of getting a $132.50 discount if the couple completes eight hours of education. The research shows that with eight hours of preparation, married couples experience greater satisfaction, stability and longevity.

Why is this needed?

Sadly, Florida has the highest number of recorded divorces in the country — more than 86,000 annually. This is more divorces than in New York or Texas. And the social and economic costs of family fragmentation are staggering.

The human costs are all around us and far too common: impoverished single moms, fatherless children and families unilaterally shattered.

The economic costs to taxpayers are also high and needs grow higher each year. Florida taxpayers spend $1.9 billion a year in public funding as a result of divorcing and bearing children out of wedlock. This figure comes from a 2008 study, "The Taxpayer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing." Ben Scafidi, the primary researcher for the study, when asked about the bill and our efforts wrote:

"If such a program succeeded in increasing stably married families by just 1 percent, it would save Florida taxpayers $19,530,000 per year. A 3 percent increase would save Florida taxpayers $58,590,000 every year."

Díaz wrote in his Friday column that this was "government sticking its nose into our bedrooms." What? You want government in your private life? Try getting a divorce. The government will tell you what to do with your money, your children and your home. We are working to reduce the need for this government power grab in the first place.

It is critical to understand that the "private decision" to divorce has profound public consequences, especially when children are involved, and the state has a compelling interest in encouraging the stability of marriage and family as a primary means of social order.

Maxwell in his Sunday column calls it a "marriage tax." Truth is this an optional, one-time, avoidable fee which creates a positive economic incentive for couples to get premarital education and lay a foundation for what is intended to be a lifelong relationship. For those who choose not to prepare for marriage, this fee would save taxpayers millions of dollars as the fees would go toward grants to pay for community programs to decrease family fragmentation.

Strong Marriages Florida is a first-of-its-kind statewide campaign to strengthen marriage, reduce divorce and save taxpayers millions. Instead of reporting and commenting on this campaign seriously and thoughtfully, Sentinel columnists have chosen to mock it for mere sport. In doing so, they have become part of the problem instead of being part of the potential solution.

John Stemberger is an Orlando lawyer and president of the Florida Family Policy Council.

http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/orl-edpopstemberger25032509mar25,0,7122898.story