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

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

The poverty problem is complex and there's only so much money to go around. Each year, states have to decide where they want to allocate resources, with worthy options being after-school programs for underpriviledged kids, job programs for out-of-work parents, campaigns to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies or fatherhood education for incarcerated dads.

The federal government helps through TANF (pronounced "tan-if") block grants, and in a review of states' TANF spending, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that among the states, there's a wide range of priorities and spending patterns.

Eight states spent more than 15 percent of their TANF block grants on the goals of reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancy and helping form two-parent families. Arkansas and New Jersey spent more than 30 percent of their TANF funds on family-strengthening measures.

But many states spend nothing, when even 1 percent would help immensely, Hawkins said.

In fact, he proposes that states pay for relationship education courses through TANF, rather than relying on limited federal grants or private donations.

That's exactly what Utah did in 1998 when it established its marriage initiative, which quickly blossomed into the second-biggest program in the country, behind Oklahoma's.

However, Utah's 1 percent TANF allocation, around $600,000, was cut in the most recent legislative session, leaving the program scrambling to find another funding source.

Utah's problem is not uncommon, because even though 1 percent is a relatively small amount of money, it's still coming from a limited pool, says LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"If (states) use it to pay for those (marriage education) programs, you're going to have less child care, cash grants or less money for other child welfare," she said. "You've gotta take it from somewhere. And there isn't evidence that shows those programs work, and that's sort of a pretty important piece of information."

Worth the effort?

Healthy marriage and relationship education programs are relatively new social policy initiatives, and because of that, there are limited studies with mixed results.

Some people, including Pavetti, point to a November 2012 report from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation: "The Long-Term Effects of Building Strong Families: A Relationship Skills Education Program for Unmarried Parents."

Unwed parents in the study met for group sessions where they learned about communication and conflict management, affection and trust, the transition to parenthood and parent-infant relationships. In addition, they received individual support from counselors and referral to education, employment, mental health, child care, housing or legal services in the community.

The study found that after 15 months of use in the eight sites, the Building Strong Families program made no impact on the couples' relationship quality or probability of marriage — except for the Oklahoma site, where couples reported higher relationship quality, better co-parenting, higher father involvement and increased family stability.

Oklahoma leads the country with its TANF-funded healthy-marriage initiative and has reached 330,000 people over 13 years, said Kendy Cox, a director at the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. Though families are still breaking down across the country, research indicates Oklahoma's efforts have acted somewhat like a brake.

Since 2000, 3 percent more children in Oklahoma live with two parents, 2.7 percent fewer children are born to single mothers and 1.4 percent fewer children live in poverty than were expected, based on national statistical trends, according to a recent analysis by Hawkins and Pennsylvania State University's Paul Amato.

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