Government-funded programs that help lower-income couples form healthy relationships and enduring marriages have come in for renewed criticism as we mark the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. In addition to the more subjective questions about whether the government should promote one type of family structure over others is an objective question: Do the programs work?
Before addressing this question, I’ll give a brief history of how such programs arose. For more than a decade and in response to the negative effects of increasing family instability, the federal government and a handful of state governments have experimented with policy initiatives to provide voluntary educational programs that help lower-income couples and individuals form healthy relationships and enduring marriages. Funded activities include programs that teach relationship literacy classes to youth; classes teaching couple relationship skills, conflict resolution, co-parenting strategies, and financial management and work-success strategies to unmarried expectant and new-parent couples; marriage enhancement classes for married couples; public advertising campaigns to publicize these classes; and more.
Of course, these new policy efforts, begun in the Bush Administration and continued by President Obama, have their critics. Some argue that the programs are misplaced; they are impotent in the face of overwhelming challenges associated with poverty. Family stability will only improve, they add, when we alleviate the problems associated with poor economic conditions, discrimination, and other external difficulties.
A cursory reading of the federal government’s in-depth studies of marriage and relationship programs lends credence to their arguments. One rigorous experimental study of more than 6,000 married, lower-income parents in eight different cities found only small, positive effects on various relationship measures (e.g., marital happiness, marital commitment, effective communication and problem-solving, physical and psychological abuse) about a year after enrolling in the program, and no impact on couple stability.
Another parallel study on the Building Strong Families (BSF) project has received more public press. It involved some 5,000 couples in eight cities, and compared low-income, unmarried, expectant or new parents who were randomly offered spots in a government-sponsored relationship skills program to a control group of similar couples who were not offered classes. Fifteen months after couples applied to the programs, there were no differences between the two groups. At the three-year mark, similarly, participating in a program did not seem to affect couples’ relationship quality, their chances of remaining together, their children’s economic well-being, or other outcomes.
But the results of this study are not as damning as they appear with only a cursory reading. For one thing, only about 10% of couples participated fully in the programs; many never even attended one session. Imagine applying the same metric to schools: If 90% of students didn’t attend classes regularly, we wouldn’t get a fair measure of the school’s potential success. Moreover, results varied, particularly at the 15-month mark, between the eight programs, as one might expect given their different designs, funding levels, and relationship skills curricula.
The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative has been the most effective public policy effort to help couples achieve healthy relationships and enduring marriages.
That brings us to the case of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI), which demonstrates that marriage and relationship programs can indeed have positive results under certain circumstances. But first a little background. Then-Governor Frank Keating launched the initiative in 1999, making his state the first to provide substantial public funding for marriage and relationship education. Since that time, the OMI has been the most comprehensive and effective public policy effort to help couples achieve healthy relationships and enduring marriages.
With federal and state funding of about $3 million a year between 1999 and 2013, the OMI has delivered marriage and relationship education services for youth, young adults, unmarried cohabiting parents, engaged couples, and married couples. The services include programs delivered in English and Spanish as well as classes tailored for diverse, specific audiences. Since 2001, nearly 350,000 residents of Oklahoma have participated in OMI programs.
Perhaps OMI’s flagship initiative is Oklahoma City’s Family Expectations, which delivers 30 hours of marriage and relationship education to low-income expectant parents, both unmarried and married, who want to strengthen their relationships. Family support coordinators assigned to each couple encourage participation, reinforce core principles taught in the program, and connect individuals with other helpful services related to employment, substance abuse, and more.
Family Expectations was among the sites included in the two aforementioned gold-standard experiments conducted by the federal government to assess the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education. The Family Expectations program had by far the highest rates of program participation in the BSF study of low-income unmarried parents, with nearly half getting a full dosage of the educational program. And it was the only BSF site to produce positive relationship and family outcomes one year after couples enrolled in the program. Most of those positive changes had faded away by three years. (Fading effects are common in government-sponsored programs: for instance, children who attend preschool through the federal program Head Start experience some gains while attending it, but by third grade the effects have mostly disappeared.) But one noteworthy difference remained: Family Expectations couples were 20% more likely to have been together continuously for the three years of the study than couples in the control group (49% vs. 41%). From a public policy perspective, this 20% increase in family stability could have important and beneficial effects.
In one study, Family Expectations in Oklahoma City was the only program to produce positive relationship and family outcomes one year after couples enrolled.
In a separate study, a statistical model based on an evaluation of government-funded marriage and relationships education efforts in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., estimated that OMI efforts were responsible for a 3-point increase in the percentage of Oklahoma children living with two parents, a 2-point decrease in the percentage of children living with one parent, nearly a 3-point decrease in the percentage of children born to a single mother, and a 1-point decrease in the percentage of children in poverty. In a state with more than 200,000 impoverished children, that 1-point decrease means OMI helped at least 2,000 kids avoid or escape poverty and increased family stability for thousands more. Although these are small changes, they suggest that relationship education efforts have potential to help disadvantaged children and reduce the public costs of family instability.
So why has the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative achieved modest success compared to many other initiatives? I believe there are three key reasons:
- The OMI has received top-level support from governors, state legislators, and leaders at the state’s Department of Human Services that is responsible for the initiative. Importantly, this support has included consistent funding of $2–3 million a year. Effective strategic planning early on laid the groundwork for delivering quality educational services to diverse populations and groups statewide.
- It has benefitted from steady, creative, results-oriented management from a private firm (Public Strategies, Inc.) under contract to the state. That firm manages the day-to-day operations of the initiative, and it is highly skilled in marketing its services.
- The OMI has partnered with the world’s leading marriage and relationship education program development organization (PREP Inc.), and uses various adaptions of their programs across the state. PREP-based curricula are, by far, the most researched and rigorously evaluated marriage and relationship education programs in the world.
Not all marriage and relationship programs make a difference for participants; most have vast room for improvement. And even with top-notch relationship education, low-income couples face tough odds in their attempts to build a future together. But as the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative shows, with strong government support, careful planning, effective administration, and evidence-based programs, publicly funded marriage and relationship education initiatives can succeed in keeping couples together and providing a more stable family structure for children.
Alan Hawkins is a Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University who has published widely on the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education programs. He is the author of The Forever Initiative, which chronicles government educational efforts to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships.