Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood: Time for some results

Many sociologists say that more marriage — or, to avoid the implication that they support bad marriages, more “healthy marriage” — would reduce poverty and improve the lives of poor children.

Who says sociologists have no impact? Partly relying on the work of these researchers, the federal government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars — from the welfare budget — for the Healthy Marriage Initiative and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative.

Has it worked? It’s too easy to simply point out that marriage rates for young adults without college educations have fallen at an accelerating pace since these programs began. What about the solid, scientific program evaluation data that really looks at the hundreds of millions spent and rigorously tests its impact on program participants?

I’m not an expert on the Government Accountability Office, but this 2008 report doesn’t look good. It uses a lot of phrases like “lacks mechanisms to identify and target grantees that are not in compliance,” and “currently lacks uniform performance indicators and a computerized management information system.”

Still, its promise for future research is optimistic:

HHS has established a rigorous research agenda to gauge the long-term impact of healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood activities on diverse, low-income populations. … Studies such as these often are difficult and take time to complete, but are considered the best method for assessing program impact. Results from these studies will not be available until after fiscal year 2010.

2010 review concluded the jury was “still out” on whether marriage and relationship classes can actually help poor couples. But the fiscal year 2010 ended in September 2010, I think, so this rigorous research must now be in the pipeline. As of this writing I don’t see any here on the Fatherhood site, but I found some on the Healthy Marriage site.

Building Strong Families

The major report is an eight-city study of more than 5,100 couples in Building Strong Families (BSF). They used an “intent to treat” research design in which half of the unmarried (or married-after-pregnancy) new-parent couples who applied for the support program were given services while the other half were not. The experimental group got things like relationship skills education, a family support coordinator and referrals to supportive services. The participants were an at-risk bunch — half African American, two-thirds not high school graduates, half with a child from a prior relationship, average couple earnings about $20,000. After about 15 months, they followed up.

This is the main finding: Nothing.

There is an individual program report from Oklahoma’s Family Expectations program, one of the BSF sites, which found couples were no more likely to be married or living together 15 months later — but they were a little more likely to be still be in a romantic relationship. On the other hand, the BSF report shows that there were negative effects of the Baltimore program site. There, program couples were less likely to be romantically involved, less supportive and affectionate, had more assaults, worse co-parenting relationships, and lower levels of father involvement.

I would like to see a third group in the studies, in which the program applicants are given a good job but no marriage support services.

My initial assessment: waste of money, pending future research.*

*There may well be more research out there on this I’m not aware of. Feel free to offer references or suggestions for followup in the comments.

17 thoughts on “Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood: Time for some results

    1. Oops, forgot to include this, from 15 months after that report was released:

      Wednesday, June 29, 2011

      ACF announces $150 million in available funding for Responsible Fatherhood and Healthy Marriage Grants

      The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Administration for Children and Families, Office of Family Assistance today announced the availability of funding for four discretionary grant awards totaling $150 million for Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood grants. These grants will go to help fathers meet their parenting and financial responsibilities to their children and assist married couples or those considering marriage in building strong relationships with each other and their children.

      “To invest in the success of fathers is to invest in the future of our children, our economy, and our communities,” said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.  “This funding provides organizations in underserved communities with the tools they need to promote responsible parenting, to encourage healthy marriage and relationships, and to remove barriers to financial security and self-sufficiency.”


  1. I don’t think it’s depressing. It shows their metrics are working!

    But — who would have known the government was so good at healthy marriages? I’d have expected controls to do substantially better than program participants.


  2. I’ll take the same tack that Western communists took after the fall of European communism and the effective fall of Chinese communism: they’re doing it wrong!! “We” are so much smarter than “Them” that we can/should do it properly!

    But seriously… who really believes that a dysfunctional government can create programs to fix a dysfunctional society?


  3. This comment arrived vial email from Scott Stanley (

    1. I am deeply knowledgeable about the BSF study design, results, sample, and a wide array of complex background issues. I also know the research team at Mathematica quite well, and have talked with them in depth about the study, analyses, and results to date. I think the Baltimore results (the negative results) are quite possibly explainable by a somewhat detailed theory about commitment issues. But that’s better for a conversation than something easily described in email. It’s the OK results that are more readily interpretable and straightforward, in my view. I think you already have the separate report on OK, so I’ll not bore you with that. There is a well-respected blog on policy issues in Oklahoma that I wrote an entry for, regarding the 15 months results in BSF. That can be found at:

    I argue there that there is a strong case to make that the results in OK are both compelling and replicable. The blog entry noted above covers my reasons for believing this (as well as noting my biases).

    2. I want to express the most amazing thing to me in the history of the BSF study and the 15 month impact results. Disregarding every other issue on the table, no one ever seems to notice or discuss the fact that, in the pooled results across the entire study (the largest of its kind in history), African American couples showed consistent evidence of benefiting from the programs. Philip, I really understand skepticism. It runs deeply in me on all sorts of things. But I just don’t understand how that finding was/is not a headline receiving much attention. If there is any clearly identifiable, high risk group in American when it comes to family formation and parent-relationship stability, it is low income African Americans. The silence about that positive finding baffles me. Will there be impacts at the later follow-up? Who knows. They come out next year. Whatever those analyses show, though, the 15 month results show the needle can be moved to some degree, and that means that such efforts might be refined for larger impacts.

    [Note: I didn’t get into the African American findings because I focused on relationship status (together, cohabiting, married) rather than the relationship quality issues. I’m skeptical about those measures, since they are based on subjective reports and seem susceptible to program-coaching effects, i.e., learning how to describe the positive aspects of the relationship from the program. -PNC]

    3. I also have a blog entry relatively concisely summarizing the general literature regarding evidence of impacts from relationship education services. That’s at the following link:
    That’s relevant to my final point below.

    4. While accepting the reasonableness of your questions today, I think it’s fair to point out that many federally and state funded programs have poor evidence of effectiveness yet they are still favored for funding. Further, the funding for these fledgling efforts in relationship education and supports costs vastly less (unbelievably less) than what is spent in other government programs. I’m not arguing for wasting money, and I strongly believe in the value of research and evidence. Having said that, I think there is a double standard across discussions of government funding. You might have a far deeper understanding of evidence of impressive impacts in various federal programs, but isn’t it true that strongly supported programs like Head Start or the myriad of government funded jobs programs do not really have all that impressive evidence of impacts? Furthermore, I think it’s true that most any government programs that do have strong evidence of effectiveness did not start out that way. Many if not most had no significant impacts in the early evaluations (so I’m often told by professional evaluators), but the programs were improved and refined to garner some modest effectiveness over time. You likely know more about evidence across many government programs than I do, so I’m open to learning differently. But, I think there is a better scientific basis for relationship education interventions, right now, in the literature than existed in various other areas before the government has jumped into program in those areas.

    In the case of BSF, Oklahoma did an amazing job of reaching people, keeping them interested, delivering a lot of service, and getting results. The people they served in that program just don’t get access to such services like this in any normal course of events. Only wealthy people do.


Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s