A dozen young couples recently spent a cold Monday evening in a conference room in downtown Oklahoma City, answering tricky questions about their relationships, such as whom their partner's family most resembles: the Simpsons, the Addams Family or the cozily suburban Cleavers from <WC>"<WC1>Leave it to Beaver<WC>." <WC1>Such lightheartedness had a serious aim: getting the couples to think about each other and improving their ability to communicate.

The couples — all new or expectant parents, none of them married — were taking part in a workshop run by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, a program that aims to help build and sustain marriages. Since 1999 the OMI has served more than 315,000 people. It is the nation's largest and longest-running of its kind, and probably the most successful.

Even so, workshop leader Boston Snowden told his charges, <WC>"<WC1>We're not trying to make you get married. We're trying to show you that there's research that shows that there are definitely a lot of benefits to marriage."

As Snowden's careful phrasing suggests, the politics of marriage promotion is tricky. Some bristle even at the phrase <WC>"<WC1>marriage promotion," hearing in it browbeaten sinners being forced into church and down the aisle. One of OMI's board members, a social scientist from a Democratic state, has said that "marriage promotion gets the ire of left-leaning individuals who see it as really connected to the Bush administration."

President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services Department did indeed launch the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which financed an array of activities designed to encourage marriage. Federal marriage-promotion preceded him, however: The 1996 welfare-reform bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, though largely the work of a Republican Congress, called marriage <WC>"<WC1>an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children."

Republicans are hardly alone in valuing marriage. A Pew poll taken in 2010 showed that 61 percent of adults who have never been married want to be, while only 12 percent do not. A 2006 poll of high-school seniors suggested that 81 percent of them expected to get married, and 90 percent of those expected to stay married to the same person for life. Wedding-themed reality shows such as <WC>"<WC1>My Fair Wedding" and <WC>"<WC1>Say Yes to the Dress" abound.

Nonetheless, as of December 2011, only 51 percent of all American adults were married and 28 percent never had been, down from 72 percent and up from 15 percent in 1960. The median age of first-time newlyweds is at an all-time high, however, which may make the marriage-rate decline appear sharper than it actually is: Some are delaying marriage rather than forgoing it entirely.

However stark the overall rate decline, it is not spread evenly. Marriage rates are higher, and out-of-wedlock birth and divorce rates lower, among wealthier and better-educated Americans. A bare majority of whites and minorities of Hispanics and blacks are married — 55 percent, 48 percent and 31 percent respectively. Majorities of all three races were married in 1960.

Similar declines and delays are occurring in much of the developed world, but Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who studies families and public policy, maintains that in America <WC>"<WC1>you don't see the same pattern of long unmarried relationships that you see in Scandinavia, France or Britain <WC>.<TH>.<TH>.<WC1> In the United States marriage is how we do stable families."

If marriage affected only the two people who choose to wed or not to wed, it would be easier to ignore falling marriage rates. With them, however, come rising out-of-wedlock birth rates. In 2010 40.8 percent of all births were to unmarried mothers.

Among Hispanics that figure was 53 percent, and among blacks 73 percent. In 1965 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, called for emergency federal intervention to aid in <WC>"<WC1>the establishment of a stable Negro family structure," and justified it in part by citing an out-of-wedlock birth rate among blacks of 23.6 percent, half what it is today.

With illegitimate births come single-parent homes, in which 35 percent of all American children lived in 2011. Children brought up in such homes fare worse than children raised by married parents in a range of academic and emotional outcomes, from adolescent delinquency to dropping out of school. The poverty rate among single-parent, female-headed families is more than five times that of married, two-parent families. Nearly 71 percent of poor families lack married parents, and children brought up in poverty tend to be poor themselves.

Out-of-wedlock birth rates and divorce rates are far lower, and marriage rates far higher, among the wealthier and better-educated. Small wonder that many support marriage promotion not for moral or cultural reasons, but for economic ones, as a way to drive down, or at least to prevent further widening of, inequality.

To plenty of people, however, that simply puts the cart before the horse. Stephanie Coontz, a professor at Evergreen State University in Washington and a skeptic about marriage promotion, argues that poverty is a cause, not a result, of low marriage rates. Better, such critics argue, for government to help create more living-wage jobs and to ensure access to family-planning services to reduce the number of unwed births, than to promote marriage as a route to economic success.

Critics also seize on the programs' track records. A rigorous 36-month study of Building Strong Families, a federally funded marriage-promotion initiative in eight municipalities, found that it had <WC>"<WC1>no effect on the quality of couples' relationships and did not make couples more likely to stay together or get married."

OMI, the largest of the eight programs studied, was an exception to the rule. Ron Haskins, an OMI board member and former adviser to Bush, credits <WC>"<WC1>all sorts of little things" that OMI did right. It was capably staffed and well-funded. It made meetings social and enjoyable by offering meals and having good discussion leaders.

One member of its research advisory group found marked positive effects on low-income couples, precisely the subgroup least likely to marry and whose children suffer the worst effects of non-marriage. Overall 49 percent of those couples enrolled in the OMI program stayed together, compared with 41 percent in the control group — a small improvement, perhaps, but a big one to their children.

<i>From the Economist magazine.</i>