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Does federally supported relationship education help low-income couples?

Critics question the initiative’s effectiveness, but a new report says the answer is more nuanced than clear

Alan J. Hawkins of BYU discusses marriage and relationship initiatives at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D..C. on Dec. 3, 2019.
John Boal © American Enterprise Institute

SALT LAKE CITY — The government’s trying to save relationships and promote marriage for low-income couples. Is it working?

For 15 years the federal government has made a hefty investment in programs to help low-income couples learn how to maintain healthy, stable marriages and relationships. But from the beginning, critics have called it a pricey, ineffective failure.

Not everyone agrees.

A new report says despite growing pains, the Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education initiative still shows promise, with certain successes and room to build on the lessons of early disappointments.

In his review of existing studies evaluating the initiative, report author Alan J. Hawkins, a professor and director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, found failures but also successes, and a nuanced big picture. He joined a panel of experts to discuss his findings at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., Tuesday.

The initiative, launched during George W. Bush’s administration, has provided funding to hundreds of community organizations for classes and support services for low-income and at-risk couples and individuals to help them strengthen their relationships and families. About 2 million people have participated, including both married and cohabiting couples.

Programs funded by the initiative have been subjected to an “impressive” body of research, according to the report, including 55 evaluations of relationship education programs and a “handful” of rigorous, randomized controlled trials.

Not surprisingly, the couples who were the most distressed and most disadvantaged gained the most from relationship education, said Hawkins, who concluded the initiative helps some of the neediest individuals and promises to help more, including children whose parents use new knowledge and skills.

“I do think these programs that have been delivered through community-based organizations are reaching nontrivial numbers of distressed, diverse lower-income individuals and couples and doing so at a modest participant cost” — less than $400 each on average, Hawkins said.

Too early and biased?

Then-assistant secretary for Children and Families Wade F. Horn helped launch the initiative, and from the beginning, he welcomed external analysis of the results. But he didn’t expect early criticisms to all but kill the effort, rather than prompting improvements, he said. Horn thinks he may have erred in being so open while the programs were still figuring out what works and what doesn’t. But he also blames ideological bias for fueling some of those negative assessments.

“I think people were rooting for failure.”

Alan J. Hawkins, Mary Myrick, Wade Horn, Lynn Johnson and W. Bradford Wilcox talk about strengthening relationships and marriage in order to help families at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 3, 2019.
John Boal © American Enterprise Institute

Hawkins agrees the early analyses were too quick, noting effective programming is “not microwaveable stuff ... good policy takes time to get it right and measure impact.”

Strong evidence says a good marriage provides stability and prevents many societal problems, said Lynn A. Johnson from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Still, the goal of the initiative has not been to enhance marriage, but to improve lives. And she, too, thinks the effort pays off.

Lots of American families need help. Johnson said that drives a push by the child welfare system to get 150,000 children who are in foster care adopted, including “kids floundering two to 10 years in our system. ... All of this is touched by family, by marriage, by commitment.”

One challenge has been managing various approaches to enhancing relationships and marriage, because different communities funded by the initiative handled the task in their own ways. On the other hand, these communities were able to learn from each other’s experiences.

What studies showed

The inconsistent methods create a mixed bag when it comes to analyzing the results, but one aim of Hawkins’ report was to normalize the results. Among his findings:

• The more motivated people were to participate, the better the results. Early on, some couples who were enrolled didn’t actually show up, and in other cases they didn’t receive enough education and support to make a difference, skewing the analysis against efforts that were effective. Later studies showed better results as programs changed and learned how to help. But more experimentation is needed.

• Evidence is growing that couples may get skills and knowledge that enable them to lessen conflict and abuse. Studies show the programs help couples communicate in healthy ways, boosting understanding and interpersonal skills, including coparenting. Some research suggests the efforts may aid mental health.

• Hawkins found a small effect in helping at-risk married couples stay married.

• There’s no evidence the programs increase the likelihood that unmarried couples will wed. Still, Hawkins believes the programs keep improving, so that may change and they may already increase how long some couples stay together.

“Certainly, in comparison to other social policy initiatives with greater public funding, much less early evaluation work and even less evidence of success ... the policy initiative is promising and merits continued policy development and empirical research,” he wrote, noting that it is “bad science to assert a definitive conclusion looking only at early studies and a limited spectrum of relevant work.”

The panelists noted some federal program designs penalize marriage. Horn, who now works for Deloitte, said it’s expensive to get rid of marriage penalties, but that should be done for the sake of marriage.

He doesn’t want to stigmatize people who cohabit, he said, “but we ought to tell people the truth. If you want to provide a mom and dad for a child’s lifetime, cohabitation is one route, but it is not as sure a route as marriage is. And marriage is not a sure route — a lot end in divorce. But it’s a better route.”