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.

23 Comments

Filed under In the news, Research reports

23 responses to “This ‘Supporting Healthy Marriage,’ I do not think it means what you think it means

  1. vijay

    At this point, I am positive that this author is sick of me commenting here; but here goes.

    The government-funded marriage support plans are a charade; they are literally oriented towards one (or two) races, but the government cannot say that. Is there anyone among the majority who cares or follows marriage dissolution or support.

    So what is even the point in this? The marriage percentage is like 33-40% of the community this charade is oriented to. If the government prevents marriage dissolution in those percentages, what will be the gain?

    There seems to be a lot of scraping the barrel projects being run by the government today; pre-school for all is one another bondoogle that comes to mind.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Luke Andrews

    @vijay
    I think Phil and you are making the same point here. This program was a wasteful attempt by GOP/Bush to “fix” low-income communities. The assumption was that dysfunctional families were the problem, and that government involvement could help improve the problem. Of course this was a program targeted at black communities, even if that wasn’t always explicitly stated by the administration. The point being that the failure of the policy shows the consequences of basing policies on ideologies that blame social problems on “culture” while ignoring economic factors.

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  3. Thanks for the comments. I agree the political target of the policy — in Congress and the public debate — was Black single mothers. But it’s not the case that they are the recipients of all the marriage promotion attention. As Melanie Heath reports in her book, One Marriage Under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America, in Oklahoma, at least, the marriage promotion (education and other services) efforts largely reached Whites. http://www.amazon.com/One-Marriage-Under-God-Intersections/dp/0814737137

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    • vijay

      It should have been anticipated. Any program that is not explicitly race-oriented, will always be used by the most, how do I put it, cognitively-attuned. If you set up a pre-school program which accepts all races, the people who will gain from it will be not the one that it was oriented to in the first place. In a similar manner, marriage promotion campaigns will be used by the majority race, not in small part due to the lower marriages in other races.

      It is a principal reason why affirmative action policies are always race-oriented and not income or class oriented.

      Similar outcomes have been seen even in explicitly race-oriented affirmative action policies. More than a third of the affirmative action beneficiaries in Ivy leagues and high school magnet programs are from African and Caribbean countries. The crowding out effect has a specific name, I forget now.

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  4. Sarah P

    This is a tangent but I wonder if the couples who ended up staying together were also more so the ones who did not feel that their relationship was in trouble to begin with? Isn’t saying you think your relationship has been in trouble or that you’ve thought about breaking up before a pretty good predictor that it will end? Just a thought in regards to relationship stability in general.

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    • vijay

      Does it matter, as pertaining to this blog post? The post contends that “This program was a wasteful attempt by GOP/Bush to “fix” low-income communities. The assumption was that dysfunctional families were the problem, and that government involvement could help improve the problem. The point being that the failure of the policy shows the consequences of basing policies on ideologies that blame social problems on “culture”.”

      Based on this, government actions can do no good or bad in keeping couples together. Relationship stability cannot be improved by government actions.

      Of course, it leads to the next set of questions; will the government extend this program to stability of Gay and lesbian families. If they do, will the author support them or oppose them. Should gay families stay together? Mind is blown.

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  5. Phil and Carolyn Cowan

    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.

    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. 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…
    “…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. 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.

    2. You say that “Without something beyond a purely subjective report…I wouldn’t be convinced even if these results weren’t so week.” 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. 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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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 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 productivc 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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    • Maybe if you did not spend so much time monitoring blog posts and penning lengthy indignant rebuttal comments, your programs might not be such failures. At some point you become complicit in this morally corrupt scheme of siphoning off TANF funds to make right wing PR firms and moral crusaders disguised as social scientists rich.

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  7. Congrats Phillip! This is Absolutely the best article I’ve seen attempting to answer the question: Which is the most effective way to destroy the family? Cash Incentives (welfare) or Sympathetic Encouragement (counseling)?

    And as it turns out, both are very good at encouraging divorce.

    In my humble opinion, it’s probably best to use both together. The welfare should always be used as a way for the wife to threaten divorce and make unreasonable demands that the husbands must submit to. Once he knows that his role as breadwinner is now obsolete, and that his wife can unilaterally take his children from him (dispite their marriage agreement) he will be much more willing to attend counseling to appease his wife.

    Although welfare alone is usually an effective means for easing the womans transition from wife to Strong Independent Woman (TM) , counseling should not be overlooked as a tool for destroying the family. It works well for those stubborn cases where the husband still insists his wife take her vows seriously. In couseling, the husband will be made aware that the wedding vows are nonbinding, and that he had better supplicate before his wife or else she will take his kids away.

    The counselors job is to find ways to drum up charges against the husband, so that the wife need not feel she is doing anything wrong by abandoning her vows, divorcing him, and stealing his kids away.

    Some devorceable offences may seem petty to those who believe in archaic concepts like honor, keeping your word, and selflessness. But rest assured, the wife is already looking forward to finding hunky men to sleep with, and the counselors job is simply to help ease her through the transition with as little guilt as possible. Easy peasy!

    Some sample “divorcable offenses”: working too much, not working enough, spending too much time with friends, not letting her spend time with friends, expecting her to fill the female role, not living up to the male role, ect, ect, ect. Remember be creative. They don’t have to be good reasons for divorce, they just have to SOUND like good reasons for divorce.

    Thanks again for supplying the science to back what we have known only anecdotally. What has started with no fault divorce will most certainly spread to children also, where children will demand appeasement from their parents, or else they will be given support so as to live on their own. This will surely make children the effective heads of household, and will insure the state has a firm grip of power over their emotional natures. Men, their logic, and their authority will no longer be a threat to the state. And the people will be free to redistribute equally from the men. Then Equality and Social Justice will have been achieved, and men can rightly be given the place of beasts of burden, while having been stripped of the privileges associated with their contribution.

    To paraphrase Marx…

    “To each according to Her need. From each according to His ability”

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