| February 6, 2013

The Mother of All First Ladies’ Campaigns: ‘Let’s Marry’

From Nancy Reagan to Michelle Obama, the First Lady, whoever she happens to be, has made a point to officially champion a worthy cause. Mrs. Reagan encouraged children and young adults to “Just Say No” to drugs. In Mrs. Obama’s case, the official cause is the eradication of childhood obesity.

These campaigns have this in common: They’re non-controversial—at least in terms of what they aim to accomplish. The warm, fuzzy nature of first ladies’ causes often serves to disguise that they’re no better than any other government program at producing the desired effect—unless that effect is the expansion of bureaucracy.

Even supposing that Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign is solely responsible for any fluctuation in the childhood obesity rate from 2008 to the present, it still hasn’t been particularly effective. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the prevalence of obesity among U.S. children ticked down ever so slightly from 15.21 percent to 14.94 percent from 2003 to 2010—but 12.5 million American children and adolescents from age two to 19 are still obese.

Meanwhile, the FLOTUS successfully urged Congress to pass and her husband to sign into law the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.” Because no one opposes “healthy, hunger-free kids,” this is not controversial.

Yet, somehow, it is provocative to propose, as writer Abby Schachter did recently in The Wall Street Journal, that the First Lady ought to give a little time and attention to espousing the importance of marriage.

For one thing, if Mrs. Obama begins to talk about marriage, it might remind the public that she and all first ladies are famous by reason of it. That’s certainly no cause for shame (and I’d even argue it’s a legitimate cause for pride), but it does put a dent in her feminist credentials.

For another and more important thing, if Mrs. Obama begins to talk about marriage, she might in some way alienate or offend the record number of unmarried Americans. According to a recently released report by the National Marriage Project of the University of Virginia and the Institute for American Values, we are “witnessing a striking exodus from marriage.” Consider one memorable statistic from the report: More than half of all births among women under 30 now occur outside of marriage.

In a nonpolitical world, all of this would signify more reason to talk about marriage, not less. It used to be impolite to talk about weight, too—but that hasn’t stopped Michelle Obama from saying, “Let’s Move!”

Ironically enough, had every First Lady from Nancy Reagan onward espoused a “Let’s Marry” campaign, they might have obviated the need for all the other campaigns. The children of married parents are, after all, less likely to do drugs, more likely to excel in school, and less likely to be obese (and that last is according to the National Institutes of Health).

The benefits extend to the adults in the marriage, too. To butcher Ben Franklin’s aphorism, “Early to wed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Married adults are typically healthier and wealthier than their non-married counterparts. Put it this way: Divorce is nearly as bad for a man’s health as smoking.

If a First Lady can campaign against smoking, she ought to be able to campaign for marriage.

What’s true for the First Lady is true for federal, state, and local health bureaucrats, too. As my colleague Brandon Dutcher has pointed out, the Oklahoma Department of Health could get a better bang for its buck by running pro-marriage PSAs in place of virtually any other kind of TV or radio spot.

Tina Korbe Dzurisin is an OCPA research associate. Formerly a staff writer at The Heritage Foundation, she also served as associate editor of the conservative website

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