Can people in bad, poor areas break out of the cycle of family instability that puts children at risk academically, economically, socially, and emotionally—a cycle currently working its way through the working class? As we describe in our 2014 report for the National Marriage Project, “Facilitating Forever,” community organizations receiving federal funding approved by both Democrat and Republican administrations have attempted to foster stable marriages and families in at-risk populations for over a decade. The voluntary educational programs are multi-pronged: They promote wiser relationship and marriage choices among less-educated youth, help engaged couples approach marriage realistically, assist married couples overcome the vicissitudes of life together, and work with cohabitating couples aspiring to marriage to achieve that goal.
Fortunately, researchers arrived early on, and their nascent body of research, alongside existing scientifically rigorous (and very expensive) studies, points to the effectiveness of relationship and marriage education programs with less educated and lower-income, racially and ethnically diverse individuals and couples.
Studies on programs involving low-income youth found that participants held more realistic approaches to marriage one year later. Research on lower income, unmarried couples found that those with high levels of course participation were 20 percent more likely to be together continuously than control group couples. And the results teased from marriage maintenance programs for low-income married couples (who are at high risk for divorce) interestingly indicate that the more at-risk the participants, the more the programs seemed to help in increasing relationship quality. One study involving couples with one spouse in the military, another group at risk for divorce, found that only 5 percent of African-American couples divorced after two years versus 18 percent for those who did not participate.
This early body of research might best be described as “mixed, but hopeful.” Some studies have failed to find a positive impact, but one study combined the research evidence to date on the effectiveness of these programs for lower-income couples and concluded that, overall, the effects may be small, but are positive. Also, evidence exists that Africa-American couples may benefit more from the programs compared to white couples, and indeed the initiatives have come a long way in adapting successfully to appeal to diverse populations.
Outreach extended by bipartisan supporters of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative included workshops among Latinos, Native Americans, and foster/adoptive parents, and reached nearly 10 percent of the population. The results? One study estimated that these Oklahoma programs contributed to a 3 percent decrease in children living with one parent or born to a single mother, and a 1 percent decrease in family instability. That may not seem like much, but a 1 percent decrease in family instability in Oklahoma translates into $43 million in taxpayer savings a year, according to another study.
Admittedly, just as observers from diverse ideologies support these programs, many from left to right have reasons for skepticism. Some doubt the efficacy of government-supported educational initiatives and are leery of intervening in people’s personal lives. However, family strengthening initiatives operate on a voluntary basis and utilize research-based programs developed by talented and dedicated scholars and practitioners. Critics worried about government encroachment might also consider the heavy-handed intrusion of courts deciding where children live after divorce, the state garnishing paychecks for child support, and our massive public assistance programs hemorrhaging money because of family instability.
A more difficult and vague criticism consists of a pervasive sense of futility that nothing can be done to stave off family dissolution. Can the Davids of helping people learn to form healthy relationships and families stare down the Goliaths of poverty and powerful socio-historical forces transforming family life into an unstable “new normal” for large swaths of the population? We respond that these initiatives need not be an “either/or” solution, but rather an “also/and” in the arsenal of other policies and programs attempting to fix educational, employment, and other woes besetting the poor in this country. Stable marriages, along with education and employment opportunities, offer a proven path out of poverty.
Educated Americans have their enclaves filled with extended family and community marriage-models to learn from, not to mention their Atlantic and New York Times “Modern Love” columns. A recent Times headline even proclaimed “The Divorce Surge Is Over,” yet buried in the article lies the implication that while the educated elite and their children become ever more stable, those on the other side of the tracks spiral into deeper instability. While relationship literacy education may not transform a corroding familial infrastructure, don’t we possess an ethical obligation to make sure everyone, including the poor and working class, understands the basic building blocks of success in our society?
Certainly, these first-generation educational programs will need to get stronger and more effective. With continued public support for innovation and evaluation, we believe they will. An institution as beloved and embedded in human history as the family is a worth fighting for even when the socio-historical chips are down. Increasing the odds that children grow up in a stable, two-parent family stands as good a chance of survival as other lost causes that surprisingly won, and may be the most important cause yet.
Alan J. Hawkins and Betsy VanDenBerghe are the authors of the National Marriage Project’s 2014 report “Facilitating Forever: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Relationships and Enduring Marriages.”
Image from the National Marriage Project report.