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.
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.
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.