National Edition

The Forever Initiative: Increasing stability, reducing poverty one family at a time

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 23 2013 11:40 a.m. MDT

Yolanda and Darius Jones sit with their three children Alexandria (1), Mya (12) and Marcus (7). The Jones avoided a divorce thanks to a relationship and communication strengthening class at The Center for Relationship Education in Colorado and now teach other couples about the skills that saved their marriage.

Provided by the Jones Family

Yolanda and Darius Jones' decision to get married was complicated, a mix of joy and worry.

After the wedding, Darius Jones would be a husband but also immediately a father to a preschooler and one child on the way.

The couple met during college and conceived their daughter, Mya, after a one-night stand. Yolanda Jones got pregnant with their son a year later when they met to try to reconcile.

But the wedding didn't make anything better, and two years later, the couple was in counseling through their church and contemplating a divorce.

As a favor to a friend, they agreed to be in a publicity photo shoot for The Center for Relationship Education in Colorado — a federal grant-funded program aimed at preventing poverty through healthy family formation — and ended up attending an eight-hour course for couples.

That was three years ago. Today the Joneses teach the class — showing by example that these skills can be life-changing.

"Most people would have written us off as a failed marriage," Yolanda Jones said, repeating what they tell the couples in their class. "But we have used some of these tools and we know that you can too and it will work. It will help, at least."

For more than a decade, Alan Hawkins, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, has studied what makes marriage-strengthening programs like this one in Colorado successful. He believes states have an often untapped ability to bolster marriages by channeling federal funds earmarked for assisting needy families and strengthening relationships toward a cohesive spectrum of relationship-education services.

He's compiled these findings in a new book, "The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships."

Hawkins believes the first step is teaching young adults what healthy relationships look like and how to develop healthy communication patterns and learn conflict resolution and stress management skills to help "young Americans get to marriage­ — or a committed, healthy relationship — before they get to parenthood," he wrote.

Even married couples can benefit from refresher courses on how to express their emotions, how to handle financial stress and how to be better listeners, what Hawkins calls "micro dosages of marriage maintenance education that can stave off the forces of entropy in the world."

That entropy is seen in disheartening statistics like the 48 percent of all children who are born to single mothers, the nearly half of marriages destined to end in divorce, and the abuse rate of children in homes with cohabiting parents — they are more than three times more likely to be physically abused than children in homes with married biological parents.

Beyond the emotional distress of such figures, the taxpayer cost to fix family fragmentation at least $112 billion each year.

"I think we've got some educating and convincing to do," Hawkins said, noting that some states don't seem interested in taking the lead on relationship strengthening, preferring instead to wait for federal mandates.

"I think it would be hard in the current budget environment, when TANF funds (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) are limited … to do something new and innovative," he continued. "But I believe we need to attack poverty from different directions, and to ignore family stability as a part of the overall picture of poverty doesn't make sense."


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