A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Santorum Wrong on Marriage


Rick Santorum claimed that the Obama administration told an abstinence education group that it could “no longer promote marriage” to at-risk youth “as a way of avoiding poverty.” That’s not true, according to the group Santorum mentioned.

At the Republican presidential debate on Jan. 16, Santorum said that Best Friends — an organization that promotes “character education” for girls in schools and promotes abstinence from premarital sex, as well as drugs and alcohol — had been told by the Obama administration that the group could no longer “promote marriage” to at-risk girls. Best Friends’ founder and president is Elayne Bennett, whose husband, Bill Bennett, was Secretary of Education under President Reagan and “drug czar” under President George H.W. Bush. Santorum said that Elayne Bennett had told him this information through Bill. But somewhere along the way, the former Pennsylvania senator got his information wrong.

Santorum: The Obama administration now has regulations that tells [Best Friends] that they can no longer promote marriage to these young girls. They can no longer promote marriage as a way of avoiding poverty and bad choices that they make in their life. They can no longer even teach abstinence education. They have to be neutral with respect to how people behave. The problem is neutrality ends in poverty, neutrality ends in choices that hurt people’s lives.

We contacted Best Friends about this claim, and we received a statement from Elayne Bennett, saying that Santorum had made a mistake.

Elayne Bennett statement: I respect and admire Senator Santorum and appreciate his concern for inner city girls. I must correct a statement attributed to me in the Republican presidential debate Monday January 16th.

The Department of Health and Human Services changed the policy for the Healthy Marriage grant awardees in 2009. Under the new policy, abstinence from sexual activity was not to be discussed within our Healthy Marriage program. The word abstinence was to be removed from all our curriculum utilized in this grant funded program. Marriage and the benefits of marriage continued to be an integral part of the curriculum.

So, Santorum was right about abstinence not being part of this particular program, but he was wrong about marriage. The group can continue to teach abstinence in other non-federally funded programs, and it plans to do so, Bennett told us via email, in programs aimed at middle-school students.

The Healthy Marriage program, however, receives federal funds. The Department of Health and Human Services awarded more than $2 million in grant money to Best Friends for marriage programs in New Jersey, the District of Columbia, North Carolina and Wisconsin for fiscal years 2006 through 2011. It awarded millions more to many other programs across the country. Bennett said the organization had to change its curriculum to remove references to abstinence for the final two years of the grant.

She said the Healthy Marriage program “promote[s] Healthy Relationships and the benefits of a Healthy Marriage. Students were taught Conflict Resolution skills, Communication skills, Abuse Prevention skills, Budgeting and Financial skills.”

Santorum mentioned Best Friends after almost correctly citing a 2009 Brookings Institution study that he said “determined that if Americans do three things, they can avoid poverty. Three things. Work, graduate from high school, and get married before you have children.” He said that Brookings found that “only 2 percent of people who do all those things end[ed] up in poverty,” and 77 percent had income above the national average. He’s right about the 2 percent and slightly off on the income figure.

Ron Haskins, co-author of the Brookings study, which looked at Census Bureau data on a sample of Americans, wrote that the analysis found that young adults who finished high school, worked full time and got married after age 21 and before having kids “had a 2 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 74 percent chance of winding up in the middle class (defined as earning roughly $50,000 or more). By contrast, young adults who violated all three norms had a 76 percent chance of winding up in poverty and a 7 percent chance of winding up in the middle class.”

— Lori Robertson