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Budget cut could hurt Utah Healthy Marriage Initiative

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 8 2013 6:35 p.m. MST

SALT LAKE CITY — A perhaps little-known but longstanding state initiative to encourage strong marriage relationships might be in trouble as a key funding source dries up.

The Utah Department of Workforce Services has decided to pull the plug at the end of June on about $700,000 in federal funds it annually diverts to the Utah Commission on Marriage.

Workforce Services has set aside about 1 percent of its annual Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant for the Utah Healthy Marriage Initiative. The program offers free marriage and relationship education classes, videos and public service announcements. One of the goals of TANF is to encourage healthy, two-parent families.

"We were faced with a situation where we don't have enough TANF funds to necessarily run all the things we'd like to," said Joe Demma, Workforce Services spokesman. "Primarily, the marriage commission was one thing we had question marks around. Will the funding be there? Will the marriage commission survive?"

The good news is that the commission will survive but under different leadership, Demma said. Workforce Services is in the process of contracting with Utah State University, which already runs a program for building healthy relationships through its extension services.

But BYU family life professor Alan Hawkins said he's not sure it will survive, at least not in its current form, even if USU takes it on.

"It would significantly diminish the kinds of activities that are being done and limit somewhat the number of individuals that we reach with the classes that we offer," he said.

Hawkins, a marriage commission board member, said the commission's effort to help develop curriculum for "relationship literacy" courses in Utah schools and provide teacher training would be lost. Also, he said, the commission's media campaign would fall off the table.

Utah was the first state to launch a government-supported marriage initiative when former first lady Jackie Leavitt helped start the Governor's Commission on Marriage in 1998. It initially depended on private sponsorship until Workforce Services started allocating TANF funds in 2001.

Hawkins worries that federal and state budget crunches will make it "difficult to fund anything that isn't health care and Social Security and defense." He said he also sees the potential for policymakers to lose focus on fighting poverty through helping to create stable families.

"There's always pressure to have an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff rather than build reasonable fences at the top of the cliff," Hawkins said.

The Legislature has not provided funding for the Utah Healthy Marriage Initiative, nor has it passed bills establishing it in state statute.

Hawkins said in weighing its options, the commission has contacted some lawmakers to gauge their interest in seeing the group continue its work with help from the Legislature. He declined to talk about any specifics until the discussions get further down the road.

Brian Higginbotham, USU associate professor in family, consumer and human development, said the university is willing to take on the program, but a contract has not been signed. The commission's activities would blend well with what the extension currently does. USU already hosts the commission's website, strongermarriage.org.

The USU program will continue regardless of what Workforce Services does with TANF funds because it runs on other federal grants, Higginbotham said.

USU provides free classes at its extension offices throughout the state for people in various types of relationships. It currently offers one titled "How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette." It also focuses on stepfamilies, noting that one-third of marriages in Utah are remarriages.

The program's goal is to help people learn the skills to maintain healthy relationships.

"We can document that our programs can prevent bad relationships so we'd love to see continued support to try to prevent people from falling over the cliff," said Higginbotham, a marriage commission board member.

"The amount of money that goes toward preventing bad relationships is a drop in the bucket compared to what the state's paying for in terms of divorce and all the ramifications because of that," he said.

The commission has provided marriage and relationship education to about 238,000 Utahns over the years, though for many, the dosage was small and the effectiveness unknown, Hawkins said.

Studies show such programs have "positive effects."

"They're not whopping, usually, but modest positive effects," he said.

Participating individuals and couples generally report stronger relationships, better communication and problem-solving skills, and more commitment, Hawkins said.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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