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  • A careful and thorough examination of the ongoing, developing work on ACF’s HMRE policy initiative contradicts the death sentence many have prematurely pronounced. Tweet This
  • Going forward, ACF needs to support innovative approaches and strategies to increase the reach of relationship education services and improve their effectiveness. Tweet This

Editor’s NoteThis blog is based on a lengthier report for the American Enterprise Institute.

In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, then–Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Wade F. Horn helped launch a controversial policy initiative to provide relationship education services to lower-income individuals and couples. The services were aimed at helping them form and sustain healthy relationships and stable marriages. The federal Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has funded hundreds of community-based organizations to provide relationship education services to youth, young adults, cohabiting parents, and married couples to help them gain the knowledge and skills that strengthen romantic relationships. Collectively, these programs are known as the Healthy Relationship and Marriage Education (HMRE) initiative. (I have blogged about this policy initiative for IFS here and here and here and here and here.) 

A clinical child psychologist by training, Horn wanted federal policy to attend to the reality that far too many children were deprived of their birthright of a stable, two-parent family. Family instability contributes to a host of poorer outcomes for children (and adults), and ACF’s $50 billion budget picks up a sizable portion of the price tag to try to ameliorate associated problems.1 While Horn stepped down from his ACF position in 2007, the initiative has continued through three different administrations. 

From the start, ACF launched a rigorous evaluation agenda. Over the past decade, more than 50 evaluation studies have examined the effectiveness of these programs, including three ACF-funded, large-scale, multisite, random-assignment evaluations. This level of serious evaluation work from the beginning of a new social policy initiative is highly unusual. But Horn anticipated that it would be controversial, so he pushed hard for rigorous evaluation. Many talented independent scholars also took up the evaluation torch.

We are 15 years into this federal policy initiative. So what have we learned? If you have been listening to policy pundits and scholarly observers, you would be convinced that this policy initiative was a resounding failure, as many pundits have panned the HMRE initiative. To quote just two, Richard Reeves wrote for the Brookings Institution wrote: “Bush-inspired policies to promote marriages have had little success.”2 And Ann O’Leary of the Center for American Progress is quoted in the Nation, saying that “rigorous evaluations of the funded programs have found them to [be] unsuccessful.”3

Serious scientific organizations also have been pessimistic. For instance, a recent report from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences concluded that “an ambitious attempt [by the federal government] to develop programs that would improve couple relationship skills, promote marriage, and improve child well-being failed to achieve its goals.”4

I disagree with the critics’ conclusions, which, in my view, are based on an early and limited range of evaluation work. I have been closely observing this policy initiative from the beginning.5 In fact, a careful and thorough examination of the ongoing, developing work on ACF’s HMRE policy initiative contradicts the death sentence many have prematurely pronounced. Instead, it reveals a large body of serious and rigorous evaluation work that shows promising successes, disappointing failures, and nuanced findings in between. Certainly, in comparison to other social policy initiatives with greater public funding, much less early evaluation work, and even less evidence of success, ACF’s HMRE policy initiative is promising and merits continued policy development and empirical research. 

Overall, evaluation research has shown that low-income individuals and couples are interested in these programs. Early critics doubted their appeal. But more than two million individuals have completed the programs (by my calculations, about 187,000 a year, on average). Despite startup challenges that affect every new federal social policy initiative, participants report enjoying the programs and say they help. Even scholars who find significant conceptual fault with the HMRE policy initiative have found that program participants appreciate the services they have received.6

But do these positive reactions from participants produce positive outcomes that can be detected by rigorous evaluation work? The first, ACF-funded, large-scale, rigorous, random-assignment study did not find impacts for these programs overall, which is a common pattern in social policy evaluation work. But it has been hard to interpret what the (mostly) “no-effect” results meant because the most salient finding was that most program sites struggled to retain participants to give them a strong dosage of the intervention; only 10% of participants had a strong dosage of the intended intervention. The study site that had the most success at retaining participants actually showed a modest increase in family stability.

Despite this ambiguity, the published results fueled criticism questioning the wisdom of this policy strategy for helping lower-income families. “The verdict is in,” said prominent University of California—Los Angeles, social psychology professor Benjamin Karney, a vocal critic of the initiative, in a lengthy 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education article. “I don’t believe our field and our science is served well by clinging to ideas that don’t look promising. It makes us look like bad scientists.”7  

But it is bad science to base conclusions on a single study rather than a full body of work. This is especially the case in social policy research that is resistant to microwavable empiricism. Policy evaluation is a marathon, not a sprint. And subsequent findings from later evaluation studies began to chip away at this early criticism of ACF’s HMRE initiative. That is, subsequent research began to show higher levels of program participation and more positive impacts.

Specifically, evidence so far is mixed on whether these programs enhance relationship stability. Some studies show they have a small effect on helping distressed, low-income married couples increase their commitment and remain married. There is no evidence yet that these programs increase the chances that unmarried couples will marry (but they may help some stay together longer). Growing evidence shows that couples can learn to reduce destructive conflict and experience less physical and emotional abuse. In addition, growing evidence demonstrates that these programs can improve couples’ positive communication skills, understanding, warmth, support, and co-parenting. And some studies show positive benefits on individual mental health. 

Also encouraging is evidence from many studies that the most disadvantaged and distressed couples that come to these programs are the ones who benefit the most. Importantly, emerging evidence shows that children of parents who participate in these programs exhibit fewer behavioral problems, likely a benefit of better co-parenting and reduced parental stress.

Holes in the evaluation research remain, of course, especially on the longer-term effects of relationship literacy education programs for youth and young adults. And there is plenty of room for programs to increase the magnitude of their effects. Going forward, ACF needs to support innovative approaches and strategies to increase the reach of relationship education services and improve their effectiveness. And the initiative needs to move beyond a focus on program success to population impact. This may mean adopting a public health mindset as much as a helping profession or human service approach. Moving the population needle on relationship quality and family stability will be the ultimate measure of success for ACF’s HMRE policy initiative.

Alan J. Hawkins, PhD, is a professor and director of the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

1. Isabel V. Sawhill, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2014).

2. Richard V. Reeves, “How to Save Marriage in America,” Brookings Institution,February 13, 2014.

3. Quoted in Michelle Goldberg, “Why Marriage Won’t Solve Poverty,” Nation, January 15, 2014.

4. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, A Roadmap to Reducing Child Poverty (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2019). 

5. I was a visiting scholar at ACF 2003-2004, helping the agency with funding and evaluation plans for the initiative.

6. Jennifer Randles, Proposing Prosperity? Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

7. Tom Bartlett, “The Great Mom & Dad Experiment,” Chronicle of Higher Education,January 20, 2014.