The future of the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which funds relationship education classes and related programming for low-income families, is at risk. If Congress finally moved forward with its long overdue reauthorization, it wouldn’t be surprising if individuals from both the left and the right called for its demise. The former group questions policies that focus on cultural issues behind changing family trends. The latter may be concerned that marriage rates didn’t increase in the ways they had anticipated. Unproductive conversations steeped in philosophy, politics, and unrealistic expectations have become the norm.

It’s time to change the narrative by centering it on one simple question: Could families garner some benefit from the actual services that are at the root of the debate?

At least one study found that couples who participated in federally sponsored relationship education programs appreciated the content of the curriculum as well as opportunities to see their relationships in a positive light, realize they’re not alone in their relationship challenges, and learn how to communicate more effectively. Evaluations indicated that some programs improved relationship quality, but did not have the major results proponents had hoped for. Some important factors in the discussion include:

  • Group differences. Relationship education has worked better for some couples than for others—for example, those who were married, more mature, more economically secure, and/or experiencing relationship challenges were more apt to benefit. With a mission to generally increase marriage rates, the government services reached couples that fell outside of these groups whose relationship problems may be harder to solve. Some researchers have questioned whether services should be more targeted.
  • Economic insecurity. One subgroup is worthy of special focus: those experiencing the greatest levels of economic hardship. Baltimore’s program struggled more than the other federally evaluated sites—but its participants had the highest rates of unemployment and the greatest levels of economic insecurity. It has since incorporated an employment focus into its model.
  • Marriage rates. Multiple researchers have suggested that economic insecurity impacts marriage decisions—circumstances that can’t be rectified through relationship education alone. Thus it is no surprise that federal marriage programs failed to increase marriage rates among participants. Additionally, the programs likely caused some couples to realize their relationships were irreparably broken or unhealthy. This isn’t a bad result, especially if services prompt improved relationship decisions in the future.

Thus federally funded relationship education has produced some positive results but has plenty of room for improvement. And it is also related to a still larger universe of services that strengthen families. Couples and family counseling can help with such issues as mental illness, incarceration, reunification with previously absent parents, chronic stress, and the coming out of a LGBT family member. It can also aid couples whose relationships don’t last by providing alternative dispute resolution methods, such as mediation, that have been shown to reduce conflict and increase cooperation in co-parenting relationships.

Since the onset of the War on Poverty, these family-strengthening services have expanded in popularity. But they’re most accessible to the middle and upper classes, who can afford to pay for relationship classes and counseling, who already have stable jobs and quality healthcare, and who are more likely to marry and therefore separate through divorce, which triggers the use of alternative dispute resolution services. The poor and working classes are largely being left out.

Given the value of the healthy family services and the limited access of low-income families, it would be a mistake to allow any dedicated government funding to disappear. To replace the flawed Healthy Marriage Initiative, Congress should establish a “Strengthening Families Initiative” focused on the well-being of children and extending services enjoyed by the upper classes—relationship and family counseling, alternative dispute resolution, and relationship education—to lower-income families.

Federal grants for this program must be flexible since communities vary in their available resources, needs, and priorities. It makes sense to support existing models with a track record of success and innovative ideas that address community challenges and the shortcomings of previously evaluated relationship education efforts (Baltimore’s couples employment program is one example). Services should be appropriately targeted to reach those who are most likely to benefit or who are genuinely interested.

Moreover, programs should feature providers who are skilled in fields such as psychology and social work and are prepared to provide the most intensive services: relationship and family counseling. Programs could also help to connect families to the healthcare system for these services, especially if at least one member has, or could have, a DSM-V mental health diagnosis.

These efforts could be supplemented with classes that meet the needs of their communities. For these new funding targets, classes could include relationship education but also other family-strengthening topics. If couples decide to separate, programs should aim to connect them with co-parenting education and alternative dispute resolution. Importantly, such programming should incorporate vigorous efforts to connect families to employment and social safety net services, perhaps by enabling participants to apply to those services on-site or making appropriate referrals.

Congress should also bolster the federal role in family-supporting services in the following ways:

  • Research. Current research efforts funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would have to extend beyond examining marriage and responsible fatherhood efforts to be more inclusive of counseling and other services.
  • Program coordination. Other government programs are relevant to this discussion—for example, the Affordable Care Act, child support enforcement, and family violence services. Coordination at the national level should inform state and local efforts.
  • Talent. A useful focus for national-level activities is centralizing the recruitment of appropriate host organizations and developing pipelines of talented, well-trained, and culturally competent professionals.
  • Funding. Given other poverty policy priorities and the potential number of participants, it is unlikely that the services described here would receive 100 percent of their funds through a dedicated line item in the federal budget. Thus the program staff at HHS, which would oversee the Strengthening Families Initiative, should advise and assist local organizations in leveraging other resources.

It is possible to focus on employment and work supports while also acknowledging that family-strengthening services can promote the well-being of children and families. Rather than abandoning efforts in this sphere, the nation should continue to shape programming that expands access to valuable supports. This will work to the benefit of struggling couples and, most importantly, of children in need of deep supportive networks to help them reach their full potential.

Joy Moses is a non-profit consultant with nearly 15 years of experience working on poverty policy. Her work can be found at www.joymoses.com.