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  • It's too early to pull the plug on government-funded relationship education programs. Tweet This
  • What works in relationship education? We'll be better equipped to answer that question a few years from now. Tweet This

As a university professor for more than 25 years, I enjoy browsing the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education. I was delighted when I saw this fine publication give attention to an issue that I have made the focus of my scholarship over the past 15 years: public policy initiatives designed to help couples form and sustain healthy romantic relationships and marriages. I’ve tried to keep readers of this blog informed about these government efforts, looking at such things as who is being served by these programs and results of some important evaluation studies.

The author of the Chronicle article “The Mom and Dad Experiment,” Tom Bartlett, did a nice job, overall. The piece was informative, mostly accurate, and balanced. Bartlett certainly did a better job than journalist Eduardo Porter did last week on this same subject in a much more prominent outlet, the New York Times. For one thing, he didn’t use the term “marriage promotion,” like so many other journalists have done to describe an initiative that is trying to provide disadvantaged couples, married and unmarried, with knowledge, skills, and supports that might help them deal better with the stresses that tear at their relationships.

In other words, directly promoting marriage is not the goal. A few program administrators used funds to run local media campaigns as a tool to recruit program participants, and some of these campaigns understandably had messages promoting the value of strong marriages. But such campaigns used a tiny fraction of the overall funds allocated to initiative as a whole. Also, though some think that government funds were used to pay poor couples to marry, this has never happened. More than a decade ago, a few policy advocates—on both the right and left—noted that some poor couples faced economic penalties from reduced welfare benefits if they chose to formalize their unions. So they reasoned that incentives to offset that “marriage tax” would be a good idea. For both political and pragmatic reasons, this policy idea never got traction. “Marriage promotion” thus does not accurately describe what the Administration for Children and Families is trying to do now: reduce family instability and improve children’s lives across a range of family circumstances.

But back to Bartlett’s article. I chuckled when I read Bartlett’s line about some points I made in an interview with him several months before the article was published. He referred to me and a few other scholars, such as Kathryn Edin, Scott Stanley, and Ron Haskins, who also were interviewed for the article, as members of the “silver-linings club.” Indeed, some of us are not overly discouraged about some early results from a large government study of relationship education programs for lower-income unmarried couples that didn’t find much of an effect.

Bartlett appropriately gave extended space in his article to scholarly critics of what the healthy marriages and relationships initiative has been able to achieve. New social policies receiving large federal expenditures —$1 billion in this case—deserve scrutiny. Respected scholars such as Dr. Matthew Johnson and Dr. Ben Karney, quoted at length in the article, have voiced concerns about the programs’ poor evaluation results so far and advocate for cutting our losses and moving on to something more effective.

In the article, Karney said “the verdict is in” and Johnson said that we should “call it a day.” That is, as good scientists, we know enough now to conclude that we need to pull the plug on these programs and move on. No more good money after bad policy. To his credit, Johnson admits that the same thing could be said about other popular social policy programs that are much more expensive and have a longer history of tepid results than does the healthy marriages and relationships initiative.

But the big point I want to make in response to their critique is this: no, we don’t know enough yet, and we need to give the initiative a little more time. I’ll be even more specific: let’s give it three to four more years (costing $225-$300 million). And indeed, that is the federal government’s plan, given the current round of nearly 50 service-delivery and evaluation grants now operating (although that could be altered by a new administration or a reauthorization of the TANF program by Congress). In a few years, we will have a lot more hard evidence than we do now to make a fair, scientifically informed decision about how effective these kinds of programs can be in the fight against family instability.

Here’s why I think we need to be a little more patient.

First, the critics’ call to cut these programs is based on too narrow a reading of the full body of evidence now available. The critics cite the first large-scale, multi-site, rigorous evaluation study out of the chute, the Building Strong Families study,1 which struggled to find long-term positive outcomes for relationship-strengthening programs for unmarried parents. This was an important study, but it was a first study. In essence, it was a pilot study—albeit an excellent, high-quality, and high-cost one. But it had weaknesses and limitations, like in all studies. It takes a larger body of work than one study to answer a complex, challenging question such as the effectiveness of relationship-strengthening programs for disadvantaged couples in diverse situations. Since the publication of this first study, a growing body of research is emerging that sheds greater light on the effectiveness of these kinds of programs.

This ongoing work (much of it reviewed here2) paints a more nuanced and somewhat more optimistic picture now. One recent study,3 for instance, reanalyzed the aforementioned Building Strong Families data and found small but positive effects for the most disadvantaged couples in the study. This study—and an emerging body of work from other scholars—points at the possibility that the most stressed participants in relationship-strengthening programs are gaining the most from them. Similarly, a large-scale, rigorous evaluation study of relationship-strengthening programs for lower-income married parents, the Supporting Healthy Marriage study,<4 found small but significant positive effects for these couples. Another rigorous study found that these programs can reduce divorce rates over two years.5 Still another has found not only positive effects for lower-income couples but positive effects on their children,6 as well, which is the ultimate aim of this policy initiative.

Also, the federal government is currently funding a handful of scholarly teams to reanalyze these large-scale data sets to create a deeper and more fine-grained portrait of what these programs were or were not able to do. For instance, right now I’m working with a group of scholars analyzing the Building Strong Families study to see if participating in the program caused any “positive break-ups.” That is, we know that some relationships among disadvantaged couples are formed quickly, are low in commitment, involve some relationship violence and infidelity, and have other serious problems.7 One of the major learning points of these educational programs is what a healthy relationship looks like. We think it is possible that participating in these programs could precipitate earlier break-ups among those in unhealthy relationships that are not good candidates for long-term, healthy marriages. It’s asking a lot of a short-term educational intervention to fix a relationship that may be fundamentally flawed rather than under a lot of stress. So a quicker (and safer) break-up might be a positive outcome. Yet a break-up registers in the study of the overall effectiveness of the program as a bad outcome.

Moreover, more scholarship is emerging on relationship education almost every month now, much of it based on evaluation studies of the kinds of programs that the federal government has been funding over the past decade. And the studies are looking not just at whether the programs work but how and why they may work, and for whom they are working. So we are still learning things that should help improve the government-funded programs in the future.

Researchers will continue producing even more work over the next three to five years because all funded programs are now required to conduct evaluation studies. Until last year, program administrators were told by the federal government not to invest funds in evaluations; the funds were designed for demonstration grants to see what was possible. (A handful of grant holders were active researchers, however, and used their own resources to publish evaluation studies on their programs.) But that has all changed. Like so many social policy initiatives, the healthy marriages and relationships programs receiving federal funding—along with their close cousins, responsible fatherhood programs—are being evaluated as part of President Obama’s broad push to shape social policy and programs in light of rigorous evaluation research.8

In short, now is not the time to toss in the towel. We are learning a lot more these days. In the next few years, a treasure-trove of evaluation findings will put us in a much better position to judge the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of educational programs to help disadvantaged individuals and couples strengthen their relationships and achieve their dreams of a stable, healthy family in which to raise their children.

Karney claims that “we look like bad scientists” if we continue to support this policy initiative in the face of some early data showing these programs have little effect. I think he is viewing the research through too narrow a lens. But just as important, if we pull the plug now, we will forfeit the chance to learn from a much broader and deeper research base than we have now. And good science calls for establishing a solid base of research before drawing strong conclusions. That’s where we are headed; let’s stay the course for a few more years.

One final comment. I want to acknowledge a point that critics such as Johnson and Karney regularly make: that poverty and economic stress make it hard for relationships to thrive, even when couples have upgraded their knowledge, skills, and supports for maintaining a healthy relationship. They are right. That is why I am a cheerleader for integrated, effective policies to improve the economic and social ecology in which these relationships are embedded. A better economy, more work opportunities for the less educated, access to better education, more sensible incarceration laws, better workplace policies to help couples balance work and family needs, and programs that reduce unplanned pregnancies are needed, too.

But it shouldn’t be either-or. Helping the disadvantaged in our increasingly unequal society requires all hands on deck. It is false to think that human relationships are only a product of their environments, that relationship choices are fully determined by their external contexts. Like many other prominent scholars across the ideological spectrum,9 I believe that human behavior and choices also play a role in poverty and disadvantage, even as those choices are shaped and constrained by external forces. We shouldn’t dehumanize the disadvantaged any more than we should ignore the difficult circumstances they encounter day-to-day. Attending to the human behavioral parts of relationships can help couples form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships. If we combine these efforts with attempts to create a more fertile economic and social soil in which all relationships can flourish, we are more likely to make a dent in the challenging social problem of family instability.

Alan Hawkins is the Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

1. Wood, R. G., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Killewald, A. (2014). The long-term effects of Building Strong Families: A program for unmarried parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 446–463.

2. Hawkins, A. J., & Erickson, S. E. (2014). Is couple and relationship education effective for lower income participants? A meta-analytic study. Submitted to Journal of Family Psychology.

3. Amato, P. R. (2014). Does social and economic disadvantage moderate the effects of relationship education on unwed couples? An analysis of data from the 15-month Building Strong Families evaluation. Family Relations, 63, 343-355.

4. Lundquist, E., Hsueh, J., Lowenstein, A., Faucetta, K., Gubits, D., Michalopoulos, C., & Knox, V. (2014). A family-strengthening program for low-income families: Final impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation. OPRE Report 2013-49A. Washington, D.C.: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

5. Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Loew, B. A., Allen, E. S., Carter, S., Osborne, L. J., Prentice, D., & Markman, H. J. (2015).  A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the U.S. Army: 2-year outcomes. Family Relations, 63, 482-495.

6. Cowan, P. A., Cowan, C. P., Pruett, M. K., Pruett, K., & Wong, J. J. (2009). Promoting fathers’ engagement with children: Preventive interventions for low-income families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 663–679.

7. Edin , K., & Kefalas, M. (2005). Promises I can keep: Why poor women put motherhood before marriage. Berkeley: University of California Press; Edin, K., & Nelson, T. J. (2013). Doing the best I can: Fatherhood in the inner city (Review Copy edition). Berkeley: University of California Press.

8. Haskins, R., & Margolis, G. (2015). Show me the evidence: Obama’s fight for rigor and results in social policyWashington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.

9. For instance, see: Sawhill, I. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriageWashington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution. Also see this letter to the New York Times by Columbia social policy professor Ronald Mincy and AEI fellow Robert Doar.