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.
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.
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."
Those who have attained more education know what a healthy relationship looks like, even if they struggle personally. The instability that plagues poor uneducated American families, VanDenBerghe said, is different — more along the lines of that portrayed by Will Smith in the movie "Pursuit of Happyness": extreme poverty, kids missing school, relationships that drag a person further from success. "Low-income families are much less resilient and need stability more than those who are better-educated. Those are still surrounded by healthy relationships."
The report noted that children in chaotic, desperate families don't get the full benefits of an education, which requires some stability.
Wilcox said initial evaluations that show some HMRIs help couples while others have failed are not reason to stop trying to make families stronger through education and skills training. "I think modest experimentation is worthwhile right now, given the fragility of family life among many low-income couples. It's encouraging that we have identified models of success in Oklahoma, California and the military, where both low-income and minority couples seem to be benefitting."
He noted that "carefully designed programs can shore up the fragile foundations of American family life."
"Virtually all individuals, regardless of socioeconomic position, aspire to grow old with the love of their life," the report said. "But it's getting harder and harder to do, at least for disadvantaged Americans. Here we describe a feasible policy agenda to facilitate forever in order to help children flourish and build a stronger nation."
Some programs can document impact. In the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, "more than 337,000 individuals, including 170,000 youth, have participated in a significant educational experience. That’s nearly 10 percent of its population, at an estimated cost of about $12.50 per participant. The investment seems to be paying off," the report said, noting small gains within families overall. One economist calculated that "a 1 percent decrease in family instability in Oklahoma translates into a public savings of $43 million a year, potentially yielding a return-on-investment that would impress even Warren Buffet."
The report also cited success in a military program. Military couples are especially at risk for divorce and high-stress marriages. Review of the Strong Bonds program found participants "were significantly less likely to be divorced, two years later, than couples who did not participate. Interestingly, the positive difference actually was stronger for minority couples who participated, with 5 percent of African American couples who took the course divorcing after two years versus 18 percent of African American couples who did not participate."
California's "Supporting Father Involvement" program, which included primarily married, low-income Hispanic couples, assigned participants to a no-program control group, a fathers-only education intervention or a couples' group. Both the fathers' and couples' groups "showed modest, positive changes in not only father engagement, but also in couple relationship quality and children’s problem behavior. Interestingly, the couples’ group surpassed the fathers’ group in several significant areas: reductions in parent stress, increased marital stability, increased relationship quality, and more consistent, longer-term positive outcomes," the report said.
Future and funding
VanDenBerghe said critics of the programs are opposed to government intervention, but she likes a point Hawkins frequently makes: "If you want to talk about government interventions, let families fall apart. Then the courts decide where the kids go and when they can be with you, or garnish your paycheck. Lots of money is spent when families do fall apart. This doesn't cost much and can prevent a lot of stuff."
The report suggests that programs are more likely to be effective if they receive some federal funding but are administered and designed by states to meet their needs.
"I think they could adapt to more unique situations within the states and offer a more comprehensive set of services," Hawkins said. "I'd like to see states step up and take this on."
One of the federal government's most important roles besides providing block grants to states could be to research what works and disseminate promising practices, he said.
The report suggests using 1 percent of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds to support HMRIs, and adding a $10-$20 fee to marriage licenses to fund programs to help keep marriages strong.
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