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Healthy marriage initiatives seem to offer small but measureable improvements for families, BYU study finds

Published: Tuesday, June 25 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

The programs, called healthy marriage initiatives, are designed to improve parental and family relationships so children grow up in stable environments. They often consist of classes that teach skills important to relationship success, like communication and problem-solving.

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PROVO — A BYU-led study suggests government-sponsored efforts to strengthen marriage help counter some otherwise ongoing declines in family stability.

The programs, called healthy marriage initiatives, are designed to improve parental and family relationships so children grow up in stable environments. They often consist of classes that teach skills important to relationship success, like communication and problem-solving.

"As you're reading it, you will see that while I don't know that the trumpets are blaring, we do get a statistical signal that those states that have more of these kinds of initiatives going on are seeing small but measurable impact on such things as children being born to two-parent families, fewer born out of wedlock and fewer children in poverty or near poverty," said Alan J. Hawkins, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University and the study's lead author. "This was exciting for us, I think especially, because a number of factors were working against us finding that.

"It seems like these initiatives may be moving the needle on what we care about: family structure, non-marital childbearing, child poverty and more," Hawkins said of the healthy marriage initiatives, or HMIs.

The study is online and in the print journal Family Relations. It is co-authored by Paul R. Amato of Pennsylvania State University's Sociology Department and Andrea Kinghorn of BYU.

It's not the first study to look at such efforts. In December, several researchers including Hawkins hailed marriage and relationship classes as a promising public policy tool to strengthen families, especially disadvantaged or vulnerable families. But Hawkins and researchers from the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center noted then that such programs aren't readily available to everyone and many people don't know about them. Not all are government sponsored. The new study focuses on government-funded initiatives.

“It seems logical people should prepare for relationships and find out what we know about this and how we can make relationships work better," said Theodora Ooms, a couples and marriage policy consultant with the national center, of the earlier study. "We prepare for child birth and driver's education."

HMI impact

HMIs typically try to bolster families and move them out of poverty, reduce divorce and generally improve children's lives. While varied, they often teach relationship skills. Hawkins said the other common piece is meshing expectations.

Research has typically focused on specific programs to measure their effectiveness. This examination was intended to take a far-off "satellite-like" view, going over what changed from 2000 to 2010, a span that includes the creation of most of the HMIs. Funding in the programs was light the first half of the decade and much more substantial from 2005 to 2010. It is in that latter period, when more resources were poured into the programs, that the researchers found "small but measurable impact."

In study background material, the authors cited other research showing children typically fare better when they are raised in stable, well-functioning two-parent families with involved fathers. Studies have found that couple instability increases economic hardship for both children and adults and that the public costs of divorce and union instability seem substantial. Couple instability is a problem that is visibly increasing.

Virtually all states have had some type of HMI. Hawkins said Oklahoma has the most sophisticated public support for marriage initiatives, with Utah taking second place.

Small, but significant?

Washington, D.C., both strengthened and confused the study's findings. The district saw increases in family stability and decreases in child poverty and was also the area that received the most funding for HMIs. In fact, that area had a disproportionate influence on the overall results of the study and when the researchers consequently took the D.C. data out, they lost their small but statistically significant HMI benefit. On the other hand, the findings in the district themselves indicated the programs help: They showed a small decrease in the percentage or non-marital births, in children living in single-parent households and an increase in those living with two parents, as well as small decreases in those at or near poverty.

While the study was not designed to prove cause and effect, "The D.C. results are intriguing in the sense that in a small geographic area with a concentrated amount of funding for these kinds of programs, we actually saw family demographics going in the positive direction, not just slowing the negative trends," said Hawkins.

They didn't attempt a cost-benefit analysis, but "it does seem to me that even these small-level changes — 1 percent, 2 percent, if you're lucky 3 percent — will produce significant savings to the public purse as well as to our private purses," Hawkins added.

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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