Marriage, Family Are Key to Social Outcomes

Marriage, Family Are Key to Social Outcomes

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released an evaluation of the Administration for Children and Families’ Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood (HMRF) initiative. The findings offer hope that at least one of the tools in the federal anti-poverty toolbox is having a positive impact. HMRF gives $150 million to community-based organizations providing marriage, relationship, and fatherhood education services to thousands of low-income Americans. And the program’s positive outcomes should encourage additional investigation and continued investment.

The Parents and Children Together (PACT) evaluation, by Mathematica Policy Research, reviewed the results of the Bronx-based Supporting Healthy Relationships and the Healthy Opportunities for Marriage Enrichment Program in El Paso. The evaluation found that couples taking part in these relationship education programs were less likely to break up, with 63 percent still together at the 1-year follow-up, compared to 59 percent of the control group. Couples also reported higher levels of commitment to their spouse, improved co-parenting behaviors, and higher levels of affection. Importantly, these programs also reduced levels of destructive behavior: Reports of domestic violence were one-third lower in treatment group versus those in the control group.

Why are these outcomes notable? Because family formation has a huge impact on social and economic outcomes. We also need to remember why the federal government launched these ‘marriage and responsible fatherhood’ programs in the first place.

In his now-famous 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued that the gap between black and white social and economic outcomes was primarily the result of the collapse of the family and the rise of non-marital births among black Americans. Since then, evidence about the impact of divorce and unmarried births on parents, children, and society has been accumulating. Subsequent research has overwhelmingly confirmed that children are, on average, more successful when they had the love, attention, and support of two parents.

The need for solutions became even more urgent as the number of births to unmarried mothers increased over the years. Between 1965 and 1995, non-marital births in the U.S. grew from 7 percent to 32 percent of all births. Among whites, unmarried births grew from 3 percent to 22 percent. The pattern was similar for Hispanics. If Americans then were serious about interrupting the cycle of intergenerational poverty, they had to find ways to build more, and better functioning, two-parent families.

The launching pad for new initiatives to support family formation was the 1996 welfare reform legislation. Congress enshrined the research findings on family formation in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, committing the federal government to strategies that would encourage the formation and maintenance of healthy marriages. In 2006, the federal government began infusing millions of dollars in community-level healthy marriage programs that provide relationship education classes. Some states also took up the charge using TANF block grant monies to fund their own HMRF programs. (Full disclosure: I was the Administration for Children and Families Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy at HHS when the HMRF program was created during the George W. Bush Administration and helped design and implement the program. I currently work for a federal contractor, ICF, that has provided training and technical assistance to the HMRF grantees in the past.) For over a decade, federal dollars have been expanding the reach and quality of HMRF education in poor communities across the country. Last week’s report is the first solid evidence that these efforts are beginning to pay off.

The evaluators were careful not to say more than the data could support. In particular, the two evaluated programs do not necessarily reflect the entire cohort of service providers. Career development services seem to have had little positive or negative impact. And few of the cohabiting couples who participated in these programs took the step to formalize their relationship. Nevertheless, the results do suggest that these programs can help prevent marriage dissolution, improve the quality of marriage relationships and co-parenting practices, and reduce dangerous conflict.

What’s next? Congress and the administration should ensure that successful practices are being disseminated to current grantees and encouraged in future rounds of funding. It may also be worth reconsidering requiring in-house workforce development services among HMRF grantees. Finally, we need additional research on strategies for encouraging cohabiting couples to “put a ring on it” so that they and their children can enjoy the full benefits of a loving, committed marriage relationship.

In contemporary society, marriage is often viewed as negative or controversial when it’s really a solution to many of our most serious public problems. Strong marriages are personal and social goods that contribute to the happiness, well-being, and stability of individuals and society. Federal programs like HMRF are contributing in important ways to making these goods more available to couples, families, and communities.

Brent Orrell is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a vice president at ICF Inc.

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