Tag Archives: marriage

Final proof there is no human tragedy Brad Wilcox will not exploit in order to promote marriage

I’m not going to dignify this with a thorough debunking, but here’s a quick note to highlight the evil that walks among us in academic robes.

Brad Wilcox and Robin Fretwell Wilson wrote a piece for “Post Everything” at the Washington Post that was originally titled like this:

offensive-wapo

The post didn’t specifically say what’s in the headline, but in this case I have to give credit to the overreaching headline writer for accurately capturing the basic message of the piece. What Brad wants to do is make people think that without exactly saying it. Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel wrote a good alternate headline for it, too: “Violence Against Women Will End When You Sluts Get Married, Says WaPo.”

Their audience is married people who feel superior to women who aren’t married, who want to coerce women into marriage — or cast them out. The friendly side of this is paternalistic shaming, the unfriendly side is violent shaming; both are expressions of patriarchal outlook. Their conclusion:

And, most fundamentally, for the girls and women in their lives, married fathers provide direct protection by watching out for the physical welfare of their wives and daughters, and indirect protection by increasing the odds they live in safe homes and are not exposed to men likely to pose a threat. So, women: if you’re the product of a good marriage, and feel safer as a consequence, lift a glass to dear old dad this Sunday.

I can’t help reading this without hearing a voice that says, “We can do this the easy way, or the hard way.”

After the interwebs’ head exploded over the headline, Brad tweeted, “Working to match title w text,” and then a new headline appeared:

less-offensive-wapo

The new headline is supposed to be less offensive, I suppose, but it amounts to the same thing. And it’s based on the same correlations in the post. There is still nothing in the post to show that adding marriage to a random relationship would reduce the odds or level of intimate partner violence. So the implication is the same: shame on you.

On Twitter, Marina Adshade pointed out that marriage rates and violence rates have both been falling for several decades. Brad’s response was, “Fair enough. But the question is this: Would they have fallen even more if marriage was stronger?” That’s a question he should probably have asked before writing the piece.

Can you imagine what he would do if he had the opposite result to work with — an increase in violence during a period of decreasing marriage?

We don’t have to imagine, actually, because he and his marriage-promoting compatriots at the National Marriage Project were all over that in the 1990s. To choose one example I have handy, William Galston, who sits on Brad’s board of advisors at NMP, wrote in 1991 in the New Republic (12/2/91) that, “The American family has changed dramatically in the past generation, and it is children who have paid the price.” We needed, he said, to “relegitimate the discussion of the links between family structure and a range of social ills.” Indeed, “theft, violence, and the use of illicit drugs are far more prevalent among teenagers than they were thirty years ago.” Now, as “revolution in the American family” has reached unprecedented levels, crime has fallen for two decades. <Crickets>

As a spoof — but with real data — I illustrated Adshade’s point. Here is the relationship between marriage prevalence and intimate partner violence rates:

ipv-marriage

That curvilinear statistical relationship explains 84% of the variance in intimate partner violence rates. If you add the linear time trend, the variance explained jumps to 92% and the effects of marriage remain highly significant.

ipv-marriage-reg-table

Wow.

If I were like Brad on the other side of this debate, the news story would read like this:

“We had reason to believe marriage was harmful, on average,” said Prof. Cohen. “But I was surprised by the strength of the relationship, especially the fact that the effect seems to accelerate at higher levels of marriage, as if marriage feeds off itself in a violence loop.” Although further research will be needed to confirm the findings, he added, the statistical association is very strong. “The bottom line is that intimate partner violence is much less common in years when marriage is more rare.”

However, I am not seriously suggesting that the decline in marriage has caused the decline in violence (although reduced exposure of women to men in general may be one factor). In fact, if you add the curvilinear effect of time, the variance explained rises to 95% — and marriage effects disappear. But the fact that violence has dropped so much while marriage has plummeted means Brad has a steeper hill to climb to make his case. It’s not enough to say, maybe violence would have declined even more. This is not one of those random spurious correlations, these are two large social trends affecting whole swaths of the population, and the correlation directly contradicts his theory. When there is a plausible connection, or the trends at least affect the same people, the burden is on the one going beyond the existing evidence to reconcile the hypothesis with the available circumstantial evidence.

But none of this matters to Brad*, or, apparently, Robin Fretwell Wilson. Their conclusion is predetermined. There is nothing that would lead them to conclude that society would not be improved by more marriage. It’s just a case of picking a subject in the news, picking some facts, and repeating their conclusions. And I think it’s appalling.

* If you’re wondering why I seem to be picking on Brad individually, please rest assured it’s nothing personal. If there was any other sociologist who behaved as poorly as he consistently does I would pick on them, too. For endless details, follow the National Marriage Project tag.

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Check that: Most marrying people are remarrying above age 31

The other day I wrote that the majority of people marrying over age 35 have been married before. That is true, but because of the way I handled the age categories it’s not specific enough. In fact, the majority of men marrying over age 30, and the majority of women marrying over age 28, have been married before.

Here are the details, in two charts, both using marital events data from the 2012 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. The first shows the breakdown between first-married and previously-married people marrying at each age. It is not until age 40 for men, and age 38 for women, that previously-married people become the majority marrying at each age. These proportions reach two thirds in the mid-40s and surpass 80% by age 52:

timesmarriedmarrying-area

But the percent remarrying at or above a given age is higher. Here is that pattern, showing that we enter majority-remarried territory at 31 for men and 29 for women:

timesmarriedmarrying-lines

The rates of remarriage at a given age maybe matter more practically, but this is a neat way to look at it.

Note there is no demographic reason that these patterns must hold. If remarriage were taboo or more restricted this would not be the case. Being ever married cannot be revoked (unless people lie to the Census Bureau), so the percent ever-married should never decline for a cohort (unless the ever-married have much higher mortality or emigrate more than the never-married, which is very unlikely). But ever-married proportions for the population don’t have to rise with age in a given cross-section, even if you don’t just look at people marrying right now. If marriage were becoming more common on a cohort basis, for example (which it is not), you could see higher ever-married rates among young people than among old people.

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Most people marrying over age 35 have been married before

Among people who got married in the past year, more than half of those ages 35-44 had been married before. For those ages 45 and older, only 21% are marrying for the first time — and almost 30% have been married twice (or more).

timesmarriedmarrying

Source: My analysis of ACS data from IPUMS.org.

 

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Does gay marriage make straight men hate children?

A few comments on a recent brief against marriage equality in Utah. But first some background.

As public opinion has shifted so dramatically on same-sex marriage, there has been some consternation about the ill treatment of those left behind — those opposed to marriage equality — as if they were nothing but common racists, whose hateful motivations may be divined from their policy conclusions rather than from knowing the love in their hearts.

Barry Deutsch has written a great response to this, pointing out that the sophisticated racists during the debate over interracial marriage made the same claim that the anti-marriage equality people make today. They were not motivated by hatred, they were not racist, they merely opposed a new, untested form of marriage that happens to go against tradition and the natural order, and would probably harm children. Especially the children.

Oh, no. Gay marriage is coming. Should I catch her? Photo by Mike Baird from the Flickr Creative Commons

Oh, no. Gay marriage is coming. Do I catch her? Photo by Mike Baird from the Flickr Creative Commons

Run, hide, double down

The smart conservative money in the last year or two has moved away from all this. Among those public intellectuals who labored to block their gay and lesbian fellow citizens from crossing the threshold of matrimony (under the terms of their choosing, at least), there are three approaches.

  • The most openly forward-looking, such as David Blankenhorn, publicly reversed course and threw in the towel. Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values has shifted to the movement against gambling (joining a sadly low-rent effort that unites Blankenhorn with the likes of Barrett Duke, a veteran of the crusade against the “homosexual special rights agenda“).
  • The more duplicitous, such as Brad Wilcox, simply avoid discussing the issue in public. Hard to believe these folks have no opinions on the subject, considering Wilcox’s efforts to generate research in opposition to marriage equality. But his new Institute for Family Studies (IFS) seems not to have mentioned this issue — even though its nominal president, Richard Brake, was (and is at press-time still listed as) National Education Director for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which has as its mission preventing the spread of a “relativism that rejects an objective moral order.” (The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which paid for some of the Regnerus study to prevent marriage equality, also funds ISI.)
  • Finally, a contingent of obdurate cranks continues to resist the new moral order, marriage equality included. I wrote about two of them, Mark Regnerus and Douglas Allen, who testified in Michigan’s recent losing battle. But this group also includes Alan Hawkins and Jason Carroll, two professors of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

Hawkins and Carroll

I hadn’t read, until recently, the amicus brief filed by Hawkins and Carroll in Utah’s attempt to stop (or re-stop) marriage equality, which is available here. Before I describe it, though, a quick word about these two. Hawkins has showed up here for his shoddy research in defense of (straight) marriage promotion. He and Carroll have both done paid work for the federal marriage promotion campaign. And they are both part of the Wilcox brand, Hawkins as a contributor to the IFS blog and Carroll as a co-author of his Knot Yet report.

At BYU, Hawkins has expressed concern about how modernity might affect the ability of Family Life graduates to get jobs:

“A very real risk is that there will possibly be formal litmus tests in graduate programs out there,” Hawkins said. “We’re already seeing informal ones in some graduate programs. It’s not just saying, ‘I’m willing to work with same-sex couples and families.’ It’s more than work, it’s that students’ beliefs and attitudes will have to align with the new, contemporary definition of marriage.”

In other words, in the new relativist moral order, it may be difficult to get a job or spot in graduate school in say, family therapy, if you believe your legally married gay or lesbian clients don’t have a right to get married on their way to spirit prison, or worse. To some of us, I suspect this is pretty close to the definition of progress.

Anyway, in the Utah case, the state recently dumped Regnerus’s argument that same-sex marriage directly harms children, in favor of the argument that same-sex marriage hurts straight marriage. (I played around with this empirically a little when Utah first appealed the federal court’s decision to overturn their marriage ban.) Hawkins and Carroll attempt to make this case theoretically.

They pretty much sum it up in the table contents, which directs the reader to page 18 if they want to read this:

Traditional, gendered marriage is the most important way heterosexual men create their masculine identities. Marriage forms and channels that masculinity into the service of their children and society. Redefining marriage to include same-sex couples would eliminate gender as a crucial element of marriage and thus undermine marriage’s power to shape and guide masculinity for those beneficial ends.

The details involve a lot of untestable assertions about how (straight) marriage shapes men’s masculinity, followed by what read as not only untestable but frankly paranoid assertions about how this would all change if marriage were to lose its gendered character. Because, all the bad things that are already happening to marriage will only be amplified by letting more gay people get married:

Many of the historical supports that have traditionally preserved men’s involvement in their children’s lives have been eroding for contemporary families. Historically high rates of non-marital cohabitation, out-of-wedlock childbirth, and marital divorce have dramatically altered the landscape of fathering, leaving unprecedented numbers of children growing up with uncertain or nonexistent relationships with their fathers. …any signal that men’s contributions are not central to children’s well-being threatens to further decrease the likelihood that they will channel their masculine identities into responsible fathering. We believe the official de-gendering of marriage sends just such a signal.

Yes, the very existence of gay marriage will encourage the evolutionary tendency of (straight) men to neglect their children. They go on to concede that such an indirect effect would be hard to detect. But that doesn’t make it any less important:

To be sure, these risks associated with same-sex marriage may be difficult to disentangle from negative effects from other strong social changes. After all, we believe a de-gendered understanding of marriage is an additional force in a larger trend that is uncoupling sexuality, marriage, and parenthood and making men’s connections to children weaker. Thus, it may be difficult to separate statistically the potential effects of de-gendering marriage from the effects stemming from powerful forces to which it is related, such as the sexual revolution, the divorce revolution, and the single-parenting revolution. That these effects are intertwined with the effects of other powerful forces, however, does not diminish their importance or the harms they can impose on marriage.

Of course, the same could be said of all the negative effects of the sexual revolution, divorce revolution, and single-parenting revolution — which are just a little too difficult to detect, what with all the increase in women’s status and independence, decrease in crime and family violence, increased educational attainment (for men and women), rising life expectancy and plummeting teen birth rates that have accompanied these catastrophic family changes.

If anyone really believes this stuff, it is still hard to believe that they believe the courts will go for it in the post-Windsor era.

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How many WWII war brides are still living?

Maybe a couple thousand.

European war brides arriving in New York, 1945

European war brides arriving in New York, 1945

Someone should do some new interviews with the World War II “war brides,” because there aren’t very many still living.

I count 1,195 still married and living with their husbands. That means there might be something like 2,000 living if you count widows and those who have remarried. We don’t know exactly how many there were, but various sources put the number at 60,000 or more.

Here’s how I got that current number, using the American Community Survey three-year file, 2010-2012. It’s all the couples who met the following conditions:

  • Married, spouse-present
  • She was born outside the U.S.
  • He was born in the U.S.
  • He is a WWII-era veteran
  • They were married in the years 1941-1945
  • She immigrated in or after the year of their marriage

It’s a pretty simple set of rules.

Some caveats: This doesn’t include any widows or widowers, just those still married (otherwise the ACS doesn’t have any spouse information). I didn’t set a requirement that she be born in a place where American soldiers were during the war (I don’t know all the places they were). I don’t know that all of the WWII-era veterans served outside the U.S. So some of these might not be real war brides, in the sense of women who met and married American military men outside the U.S. during a war.

Still, I think the formula works well. These are the women it turned up:

  • 84% immigrated in 1945 or 1946
  • The age range is 82-94, with a median of 85
  • About two-thirds were under age 20 when they married
  • 61% from the United Kingdom (mostly England)
  • 11% from elsewhere in Western Europe (France, Belgium, Italy)
  • 7% from Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia)
  • The remaining 20% from Canada, Australia/New Zealand, Israel/Palestine, Japan, other)

If you follow my suggestion of finding and interviewing these women or their husbands, here are some other sources you might use:

 

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Response from Supporting Healthy Marriage supporters, with responses

In response to yesterday’s post, “This ‘Supporting Healthy Marriage,’ I do not think it means what you think it means,” Phil and Carolyn Cowan posted a comment, which I thought I should elevate to a new post.

Photo by Ben Francis from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Ben Francis from Flickr Creative Commons

Here is their comment, in full, with my responses.

Since the issue here is one of perspective in reporting, we (Phil Cowan and Carolyn Cowan) need to say that we were two of a group of academic consultants to the Supporting Healthy Marriage Project.

Thank you for acknowledging that. I noticed that Alan Hawkins, in his comment on the new study for Brad Wilcox’s blog, says he has “published widely on the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education programs,” but doesn’t say who paid for that voluminous research (with its oddly consistent positive findings). More about his Hawkins below.

Social scientists who want to inform the public about the results of an important study should actually inform the public about the results, not just give examples that support the author’s point of view.

Naturally, which is why I publicized the study, provided a link to it in full, and provided the examples quoted below.

It’s true as you report that there were no differences in the divorce rate between group participants and controls (we can debate whether affecting the divorce rate would be a good outcome), and that… [quoting from the original post]

“…there were no differences in the divorce rate between group participants and controls and “there were small but sustained improvements in subjectively-measured psychological indicators. How small? For relationship quality, the effect of the program was .13 standard deviations, equivalent to moving 15% of the couples one point on a 7-point scale from “completely unhappy” to “completely happy.” So that’s something. Further, after 30 months, 43% of the program couples thought their marriage was “in trouble” (according to either partner) compared with 47% of the control group. That was an effect size of .09 standard deviations. So that’s something, too. Many other indicators showed no effect. However, I discount even these small effects since it seems plausible that program participants just learned to say better things about their marriages. Without something beyond a purely subjective report — for example, domestic violence reports or kids’ test scores — I wouldn’t be convinced even if these results weren’t so weak.”

1. A slight uptick in marital satisfaction. The program moved 15% of the couples up one point. But more than 50 studies show that without intervention, marital quality, on the average goes down. And, it isn’t simply that 15% of the couples moved up one point. Since this is the mean result, some moved less (or down) but some moved up. Some also moved up from the lower point to relationship tolerability.

It is interesting that, with so many studies showing that marital quality goes down without intervention, this is not one of them. That is important because of what it implies about the sample. Quoting from the report now (p. 32):

At study entry, a fairly high percentage (66 percent) of both program and control group couples said that they had recently thought their marriage was in trouble. This percentage dropped across both research groups over time. This finding is contrary to much of the literature in the area, which generally suggests that marital distress tends to increase and that marital quality tends to decline over time. The decline in marital distress was initially steeper for program group members, and the difference between the program and control groups was sustained over time. This suggests that couples may have entered the program at low points in their relationships.

Back to the Cowans:

While the effects were small (but statistically reliable), they were hardly trivial. For instance, two years after the program, about 42% of SHM couples reported that their marriage had been in trouble recently compared to about 47% of control-group couples. That 5% difference means nearly 150 more SHM couples than control-group couples felt that their marriage was solid.

There are several problems here.

First, this paragraph appears verbatim in Hawkins’ post as well. I’m not going to speculate about how the same paragraph ended up in two places — there are some obvious possibilities — but clearly someone has not communicated the origin of this passage.

Second, this is not the right way to use “for instance.” This “for instance” refers to the only outcome of any substantial size in the entire study. It is not an “instance” of some larger pool of non-trivial results, it is the outlier. (And “solid” is not the same as not saying the marriage is “in trouble.”)

Anyway, third, this phrase is just wrong: “small (but statistically reliable)… hardly trivial.” For most of the positive outcomes they were exactly so small as to be trivial, and exactly not statistically reliable. Quoting from the report again, on coparenting and parenting (p. 39):

Table 9 shows that, of the 10 outcomes examined, only three impacts are statistically significant. The magnitudes of these impact estimates are also very small, with the largest one having an effect size of 0.07. These findings did not remain statistically significant after additional statistical tests were conducted to adjust for the number of outcomes examined. In essence, the findings suggest that there is a greater than 10 percent chance that this pattern of findings could have occurred if SHM had no effect on coparenting and parenting.

And quoting from the report again, on child outcomes (p. 41):

Table 10 shows that the SHM program had statistically significant impacts on two out of four child outcomes, but the impacts are extremely small. SHM improved children’s self-regulatory skills by 0.03 standard deviation, and it reduced children’s externalizing behavior problems by 0.04 standard deviation. … The evidence of impacts on child outcomes is further weakened by the results of subsequent analyses that were conducted to adjust for the number of outcomes examined. These findings suggest that there is a greater than 10 percent chance that this pattern could have occurred if SHM had no effect on child outcomes.

In other words, trivial effects, and not statistically reliable.

2. You say that “Without something beyond a purely subjective report…I wouldn’t be convinced even if these results weren’t so weak.” You were content to focus on two self-report measures. At the 18 month follow-up, program group members reported higher levels of marital happiness, lower levels of marital distress, greater warmth and support, more positive communication skills, and fewer negative behaviors and emotions in their interactions with their spouses, relative to control group members. They also reported less psychological abuse (though not less physical abuse). These effects continued at the 36 month follow-up [should be 30-month -pnc]. Observations of couple interaction (done only at 18 months) indicated that the program couples, on average, showed more positive communication skills and less anger and hostility than the control group. Because the quality of these interactions of the partners, the effects, though small, were coded by observers blind to experimental status of the participants, meaning that not only the self-reports suggest some positive effects but observers could identify some differences between couples in the intervention and control groups that we know are important to couple and child well-being.

I am confused by this. The description of the variables for communication skills and warmth (p. 67) describes them as answers to survey questions, not observations (e.g., “We are good at working out our differences”). I’m looking pretty hard and not seeing what is described here. The word “anger” is not in the report, and the word “hostility” only occurs with regard to parents’ behavior toward children. Someone please point me to the passage that contradicts me, if there is one.

3. When all the children were considered as one group, regardless of age, there were no effects on child outcomes, but there WERE significant effects on younger children (age 2-4), compared with children 5 to 8.5 and children 8.5 to 17. The behaviors of the younger children of group participants were reported to be – and observed to be — more self- regulated, less internalizing (anxious, depressed, withdrawn), and less externalizing (aggressive, non-cooperative, hyperactive). It seems reasonable to us that a 16 week intervention for parents might not be sufficient to reduce negative behavior in older children.

On the younger children, I discounted that because the report said (p. 42): “While the findings for the youngest children are promising, there is some uncertainty because the pattern of results is not strong enough to remain statistically significant once adjustments are made to account for the number of outcomes examined.”

4. For every positive outcome we have cited, you or any critic can find another measure that shows that the intervention had no effect. That’s part of our point here. Rather than yes or no, what we have is a complicated series of findings that lead to a complicated series of decisions about how best to be helpful to families.

That’s just not an accurate description. There are many null findings for each positive finding, and the positive findings themselves are either small, trivially small, or not statistically reliable.

4. Several times you suggest that giving couples the $9,000 per family (the program costs) would do better. Do you have evidence that giving families money increases, or at least maintains, family relationship quality? Is $9,000 a lot? Compared to what? According to the Associated Press, New York city’s annual cost per jail inmate was $167,731 last year. In other words, we are already spending billions to serve families when things go wrong, and some of the small effects of the marital could be thought of as preventive – especially at earlier stages of children’s development.

At the end of your blog, you rightly suggest a study in which giving families money is pitted in a random trial against relationship interventions. That’s a good idea, but that suggests more research. Furthermore, why must we always discuss programs in terms of yes or no, good or bad? What if we gave families $9,000 AND provided help with their relationships – and tested for the effects of a combined relationship and cash assistance.

We have lots of evidence that richer couples are less likely to divorce, of course. I don’t know that giving someone $9,000 would help with relationship quality, but I’m guessing it would at least help pay the rent or pay for some daycare.

It’s important to acknowledge that we’re not talking about research. The marriage promotion program is coming out of the welfare budget, not NIH or NSF. This study is a small part of it. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on this, of which the studies account for a small amount. If this boondoggle continues, and they continue to study it, then they should include the cash-control group.

5. It seems to us that as a social scientist, you would want to ask “what have we learned about helping families from this study and from other research on couple relationship education?” We would suggest that we’ve learned that the earlier Building Strong Families program for unmarried low-income families had low attendance and no positive effects. A closer reading of those reports suggest that many of the unmarried partners were not in long-term relationships and were not doing very well at the outset. Perhaps it was a long-shot to offer some of them relationship help. We’ve also learned that the Strengthening Healthy Marriage program for married low-income families had some small but lasting effects on both self-reported and observed measures of their relationship quality (we think that the researchers learned something from the earlier study). And, notably, we’ve learned that there seemed to be some benefits for younger children when their parents took advantage of relationship strengthening behaviors.

We always learn something. See my comments above for why this is a stretch. I would be happy to see, and even pay for, research on what helps poor families. We already do some of that, through scientific agencies. My objection is not to the research, but to the program that it is studying, which takes money away from things we know are good.

Here is their last word — as good a defense as any for this program.

We know from many correlational studies that when parents are involved in unresolvable high level conflict, or are cold and withdrawn from each other, parenting is likely to be less effective, and their children fare less well in their cognitive, emotional, and social development. It was not some wild government idea that improving couple relationships could have benefits for children. Evidence in many studies and meta-analyses of studies of couple relationship interventions in middle-class families, and more recently for low-income families, have also been shown to produce benefits for the couples themselves — and for their kids. This was not a government program to force marriage on poor families. The participants were already married. It was a program that offered free help because maintaining good relationships is hard for couples at any level, but low-income folks have fewer financial resources to get all kinds of help that every family needs.

We are not suggesting that strengthening family relationships alone is a magic bullet for improving the lot of poor families. But, in our experience over the past many years, it gives the parents some tools for building more productive couple and parent-child relationships, which gives both the parents and their children more confidence and hope.

What we need to learn is how to do family relationship strengthening more effectively, and how to combine that activity with other approaches, now being tried in isolated silos of government, foundations, and private agencies, in order to make life better for parents and their kids.
In our view, trumpeting the failure of Supporting Healthy Marriage by focusing on a few of the negative findings doesn’t help move us toward that goal.

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This ‘Supporting Healthy Marriage,’ I do not think it means what you think it means

New results are in from the unrelenting efforts to redirect welfare spending to marriage promotion. By my unsophisticated calculations we’re more than $1 billion into this program, without a single, proven healthy marriage yet to show for it.

The latest report is a study of the Supporting Healthy Marriage program, in which half of 6,298 couples were offered an extensive relationship support and education program. Short version: Fail.

Photo by Marlin Keesley from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by Marlin Keesley from Flickr Creative Commons

Supporting Healthy Marriage is a federal program called “the first large-scale, multisite, multiyear, rigorous test of marriage education programs for low-income married couples.” The program evaluation used eight locations, with married, low- or modest-income parents (or expectant couples) offered a year-long program. Those in the program group had a four- to five-month series of workshops, followed by educational and social events to reinforce the curriculum.

Longer than most marriage education services and based on structured curricula shown to be effective with middle-income couples, the workshops were designed to help couples enhance the quality of their relationships by teaching strategies for managing conflict, communicating effectively, increasing supportive behaviors, and building closeness and friendship. Workshops also wove in strategies for managing stressful circumstances commonly faced by lower-income families (such as job loss, financial stress, or housing instability), and they encouraged couples to build positive support networks in their communities.

This was a good program, with a good quality evaluation. To avoid selection biases, for example, the study included those who did not participate despite being offered the program. But participation rates were good:

According to program information data, on average, 83% of program group couples attended at least one workshop; 66% attended at least one supplemental activity; and 88% attended at least one meeting with their family support workers. Overall, program group couples participated in an average of 27 hours of services across the three components, including an average of 17 hours of curricula, nearly 6 hours of supplemental activities, and 4 hours of in-person family support meetings.

The couples had been together an average of 6 years; 82% had incomes below twice the poverty level. More than half thought their marriage was in trouble when they started.

But the treatment and control groups followed the exact same trajectory. At 12 months, 90% of both groups were still married or in a committed relationship, after 30 months it was 81.5% for both groups.

HMEval

The study team also broke down the very diverse population, but could not find a race/ethnic or income group that showed noteworthy different results. A complete failure.

But wait. There were some “small but sustained” improvements in subjectively-measured psychological indicators. How small? For relationship quality, the effect of the program was .13 standard deviations, equivalent to moving 15% of the couples one point on a 7-point scale from “completely unhappy” to “completely happy.” So that’s something. Further, after 30 months, 43% of the program couples thought their marriage was “in trouble” (according to either partner) compared with 47% of the control group. That was an effect size of .09 standard deviations. So that’s something, too. Many other indicators showed no effect.

However, I discount even these small effects since it seems plausible that program participants just learned to say better things about their marriages. Without something beyond a purely subjective report — for example, domestic violence reports or kids’ test scores — I wouldn’t be convinced even if these results weren’t so weak.

What did this cost? Round numbers: $9,100 per couple, not including evaluation or start-up costs. That would be $29 million for half the 6,298 couples. The program staff and evaluators should have thanked the poor families that involuntarily gave up that money from the welfare budget in the service of the marriage-promotion agenda. We know that cash would have come in handy – so thanks, welfare!

The mild-mannered researchers, realizing (one can only hope) that their work on this boondoggle is coming to an end, conclude:

It is worthwhile considering whether this amount of money could be spent in ways that bring about more substantial effects on families and children.

For example, giving the poor couples $9,000.

Trail of program evaluation tears

We have seen results this bad before. The Building Strong Families (BSF) program, also thoroughly evaluated, was a complete bust as well:

Some of the people trying to bolster these programs — researchers, it must be said, who are supported by the programs — have produced almost comically bad research, such as this disaster of an analysis I reported on earlier.

Now it’s time to prepare ourselves for the rebuttals of the marriage promoters, who are by now quite used to responding to this kind of news.

  • We shouldn’t expect government programs to work. Just look at Head Start. Of course, lots of programs fail. And, specifically, some large studies have failed to show that kids whose parents were offered Head Start programs do better than those whose parents were not. But Head Start is offering a service to parents who want it, that most of them would buy on their own if it were not offered. Head Start might fail at lifting children out of poverty while succeeding at providing a valuable, need-based service to low-income families.
  • Rich people get marriage counseling, so why shouldn’t poor people? As you can imagine, I am all for giving poor people all the free goods and services they can carry. Just make it totally voluntary, don’t do it to change their behavior to fit your moral standards, and don’t pay for it by taking cash out of the pockets of single-parent families. I really am all in favor of marriage counseling for people who want it, but this is not the policy platform to get that done.
  • These small subjectively-measured benefits are actually very important, and were really the point anyway. No, the point was to promote marriage, from the welfare law itself (described here) to the Healthy Marriage Initiative. If the point was to make poor people happier Congress never would have gone for it.
  • We have to keep trying. We need more programs and more research. If you want to promote marriage, here’s a research plan: have a third group in the study — in addition to the program and control group — who get cash equivalent to the cost of the service. See how well the cash group does, because that’s the outcome you need to surpass to prove this policy a success.

Everyone loves marriage these days. But a lot of people like to think of promoting marriage as a way to reduce poverty, and with that they believe poor people are that way because they’re not married. That’s mostly backwards.

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