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.
A 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.