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Marriage education programs can help low-income families but need bolstering, report says

Published: Sunday, Feb. 9 2014 10:00 p.m. MST

A new report says relationship education can bolster marriage, and thus family stability. An assessment of how programs across the nation are working finds a mixed bag, but also provides hints on what works best.

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Marriage thrives among educated and wealthy Americans, but the relationships of working-class and poor couples are often frail, threatening child development and well-being. High divorce levels, cohabitation and tenuous partnerships are among the factors that hit lower-class, uneducated families especially hard.

It's a problem so serious that federal and state governments have been funding what are called "healthy marriages and relationships initiatives," or HMRIs, that target the building of strong relationships at all stages, including sometimes before they're formed. Efforts to strengthen families and relationships have found support across political party lines.

The data on how well education programs work, though, seems mixed, according to a new report, "Facilitating Forever," released Monday by the National Marriage Project and written by BYU professor Alan J. Hawkins of the School of Family Life and writer Betsy VanDenBerghe. The researchers identified some programs that seem to be having impact to help families, particularly those in the deepest distress. But not all programs can prove they make a difference.

Early stages

Hawkins said assessments of what works among the various programs nationwide are in the early stages, but evidence suggests educational programs may be making small impacts. "By small, I don't mean trivial," he said. "They may be reducing the number of single-parent families and increasing the number of two-parent families."

Helping unmarried couples cement their relationships has not been very successful. But programs have made gains helping at-risk lower-income married couples strengthen bonds.

The report said early assessments show "mixed and modest but encouraging results."

The report also highlights several types of HMRI education, most of it focused on young, at-risk individuals and couples. These include relationship literacy education, which is preventive in nature for young people; relationship development education for unmarried parents or cohabitating couples who hope to marry; marriage preparation education for engaged couples; and marriage maintenance for married couples.

The interventions are especially crucial for children because kids in unstable families "suffer physically, have mental health issues, they're lonelier, and just like the intergenerational cycle of poverty, there's intergenerational transmission of divorce," said Hawkins. "It occurs for them at much higher rates. They are much more likely to get pregnant or impregnate someone. They are more likely to commit a crime. These things are not all about family structure, but it does matter."

HMRIs have potential to do great good, the report said. "If an increasing number of at-risk individuals participate in these programs early in their lives, they will be better able to form healthy relationships and enduring marriages that ultimately improves child well-being and reduces poverty in our society."

But even programs that succeed would not solve all the instability experienced by fragile families in America, said Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. "Both government and civic institutions and culture need to move in a more family-friendly direction if we are to strengthen and stabilize family life among low-income couples," he said.

Two Americas

Efforts to "bridge the growing class divide" when it comes to marriage and family stability cross political lines, said Wilcox. "Marriage is an important institution that Americans of all classes and races and ethnic group aspire to, and what we need to do is figure out ways to make that aspiration more accessible to the working class … rather than accepting the family inequality. Family instability is different for those who are well-educated."

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