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The Forever Initiative: Increasing stability, reducing poverty one family at a time

Yolanda and Darius Jones' decision to get married was complicated, a mix of joy and worry.

After the wedding, Darius Jones would be a husband but also immediately a father to a preschooler and one child on the way.

The couple met during college and conceived their daughter, Mya, after a one-night stand. Yolanda Jones got pregnant with their son a year later when they met to try to reconcile.

But the wedding didn't make anything better, and two years later, the couple was in counseling through their church and contemplating a divorce.

As a favor to a friend, they agreed to be in a publicity photo shoot for The Center for Relationship Education in Colorado — a federal grant-funded program aimed at preventing poverty through healthy family formation — and ended up attending an eight-hour course for couples.

That was three years ago. Today the Joneses teach the class — showing by example that these skills can be life-changing.

"Most people would have written us off as a failed marriage," Yolanda Jones said, repeating what they tell the couples in their class. "But we have used some of these tools and we know that you can too and it will work. It will help, at least."

For more than a decade, Alan Hawkins, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University, has studied what makes marriage-strengthening programs like this one in Colorado successful. He believes states have an often untapped ability to bolster marriages by channeling federal funds earmarked for assisting needy families and strengthening relationships toward a cohesive spectrum of relationship-education services.

He's compiled these findings in a new book, "The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships."

Hawkins believes the first step is teaching young adults what healthy relationships look like and how to develop healthy communication patterns and learn conflict resolution and stress management skills to help "young Americans get to marriage­ — or a committed, healthy relationship — before they get to parenthood," he wrote.

Even married couples can benefit from refresher courses on how to express their emotions, how to handle financial stress and how to be better listeners, what Hawkins calls "micro dosages of marriage maintenance education that can stave off the forces of entropy in the world."

That entropy is seen in disheartening statistics like the 48 percent of all children who are born to single mothers, the nearly half of marriages destined to end in divorce, and the abuse rate of children in homes with cohabiting parents — they are more than three times more likely to be physically abused than children in homes with married biological parents.

Beyond the emotional distress of such figures, the taxpayer cost to fix family fragmentation at least $112 billion each year.

"I think we've got some educating and convincing to do," Hawkins said, noting that some states don't seem interested in taking the lead on relationship strengthening, preferring instead to wait for federal mandates.

"I think it would be hard in the current budget environment, when TANF funds (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) are limited … to do something new and innovative," he continued. "But I believe we need to attack poverty from different directions, and to ignore family stability as a part of the overall picture of poverty doesn't make sense."


The poverty problem is complex and there's only so much money to go around. Each year, states have to decide where they want to allocate resources, with worthy options being after-school programs for underpriviledged kids, job programs for out-of-work parents, campaigns to reduce out-of-wedlock pregnancies or fatherhood education for incarcerated dads.

The federal government helps through TANF (pronounced "tan-if") block grants, and in a review of states' TANF spending, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that among the states, there's a wide range of priorities and spending patterns.

Eight states spent more than 15 percent of their TANF block grants on the goals of reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancy and helping form two-parent families. Arkansas and New Jersey spent more than 30 percent of their TANF funds on family-strengthening measures.

But many states spend nothing, when even 1 percent would help immensely, Hawkins said.

In fact, he proposes that states pay for relationship education courses through TANF, rather than relying on limited federal grants or private donations.

That's exactly what Utah did in 1998 when it established its marriage initiative, which quickly blossomed into the second-biggest program in the country, behind Oklahoma's.

However, Utah's 1 percent TANF allocation, around $600,000, was cut in the most recent legislative session, leaving the program scrambling to find another funding source.

Utah's problem is not uncommon, because even though 1 percent is a relatively small amount of money, it's still coming from a limited pool, says LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"If (states) use it to pay for those (marriage education) programs, you're going to have less child care, cash grants or less money for other child welfare," she said. "You've gotta take it from somewhere. And there isn't evidence that shows those programs work, and that's sort of a pretty important piece of information."

Worth the effort?

Healthy marriage and relationship education programs are relatively new social policy initiatives, and because of that, there are limited studies with mixed results.

Some people, including Pavetti, point to a November 2012 report from the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation: "The Long-Term Effects of Building Strong Families: A Relationship Skills Education Program for Unmarried Parents."

Unwed parents in the study met for group sessions where they learned about communication and conflict management, affection and trust, the transition to parenthood and parent-infant relationships. In addition, they received individual support from counselors and referral to education, employment, mental health, child care, housing or legal services in the community.

The study found that after 15 months of use in the eight sites, the Building Strong Families program made no impact on the couples' relationship quality or probability of marriage — except for the Oklahoma site, where couples reported higher relationship quality, better co-parenting, higher father involvement and increased family stability.

Oklahoma leads the country with its TANF-funded healthy-marriage initiative and has reached 330,000 people over 13 years, said Kendy Cox, a director at the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. Though families are still breaking down across the country, research indicates Oklahoma's efforts have acted somewhat like a brake.

Since 2000, 3 percent more children in Oklahoma live with two parents, 2.7 percent fewer children are born to single mothers and 1.4 percent fewer children live in poverty than were expected, based on national statistical trends, according to a recent analysis by Hawkins and Pennsylvania State University's Paul Amato.

They also found that across the country, the states that spent more money per capita on marriage-strengthening initiatives had fewer out-of-wedlock births and fewer children living with single parents. But when Washington, D.C.'s positive outlier data was thrown out (the district spent more than double the amount of the next-highest state, Oklahoma), the positive findings became statistically insignificant, though still pointed in a positive direction.

These mixed reviews don't necessarily mean that marriage-strengthening programs aren't working, said Bill Coffin, a recently retired special assistant for marriage education in the Administration for Children and Families. What it means is the programs are new and perhaps the evaluation tools aren't refined enough yet, he said.

"It's the first go-round," he said. "Some people would say, 'Head Start's been at it for 40 years and is still struggling to get it right. But rather than critiquing other ways of spending money, we're looking at 1 percent … of TANF … in the hopes that we would, with refinement, with new research, with new program development, be able to show that the glass being half empty doesn't matter much to the couples who attend, who say … 'If it wasn't for you, our glass would be completely empty.'"

Hawkins' six proposals:

  • Increase and improve relationship-literacy education for youth and emerging adults
  • Offer marriage-preparation education for engaged couples (or marriage-focused classes for cohabiting parents)
  • Provide ongoing marriage-maintenance education, specifically focused on the early years of marriage
  • Offer divorce-orientation education to provide education about reconciliation as well as healthy ways of dealing with conflict and going forward with co-parenting
  • Pay for these programs through 1 percent TANF fund allocation and a small portion of marriage license fees
  • Offer federal support to these programs through conducting research and sharing findings and creating national media campaigns to promote these programs and their benefits