Marriage Support Needs Time to Work

Federal efforts to directly strengthen relationships and marriages among lower-income Americans have failed and should be shut down. This is one of Philip Cohen’s arguments in this symposium on the success sequence. He’s making this claim, I suppose, on the force of two evaluations of the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI), which have found that, in the aggregate, the programs studied were not successful in improving the quality or stability of low-income couples’ relationships, especially the unmarried couples served by the initiative.

I share some of Cohen’s concerns about the effectiveness and legitimacy of these initiatives; elsewhere, I’ve expressed reservations about the federal government intervening directly in men’s and women’s relationships. But Cohen did not do justice to the existing literature on the HMI or of interventions like those used within it. For instance, he ignores evidence of modest success for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative in fostering family stability (the longest running local effort working on this issue) and research that found that spending on the HMI was “positively associated with small changes in the percentage of married adults in the population.”

Nevertheless, the implicit standard that Cohen is articulating here is that federally funded programs should be discontinued if (a) they do not show clear and consistent positive results of effectiveness two to three years after implementation (b) in the first round of program evaluation. If the United States had adapted Cohen’s standard a half century ago, this would have resulted in the elimination of scores of federally funded programs that now garner hundreds of billions of dollars every year in public spending—from job training to Head Start. As Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution noted in his presidential address to the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management in 2016, “rigorous evaluations of social programs show that most of them do not work.”

I am sure Michael Tanner and the Cato Institute would be happy with the Cohen standard for program elimination. But as for me, I would like to give the various programs associated with the Healthy Marriage Initiative a few more years to demonstrate their potential efficacy, much like we do with the vast majority of federal programs. If there is more consistent evidence of program success in five years, the United States can keep funding them. If not, I would join Cohen and Tanner in urging the Congress to pull the plug on federally funded marriage and relationship education.

Finally, in thinking about public policies and programs designed to strengthen marriage and relationships for lower-income Americans, I think an “analogy to health policy is useful here,” to quote from family scholar Alan Hawkins. In his words,

We know that impoverished circumstances make it much more likely the poor will become overweight. As a society, we must constantly struggle to overcome the inequalities that poverty present. While doing so, however, we should not withhold knowledge and skills about healthy eating and lifestyles. We should treat the poor as resourceful people rather than passive pawns. Similarly, I trust the science of relationships can help many people and even be most helpful to those who struggle daily with the external stresses of poverty. I don’t think it is a stretch here to invoke the language of civil rights – that all people deserve an education about matters that are so crucial to human flourishing.

If it is indeed possible to provide publicly funded relationship education that strengthens the quality and stability of lower-income family life, I would be willing to entertain this kind of case for continuing with the Healthy MarriageInitiative. Only time will tell if sufficient empirical warrant emerges for such a case.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Michael D. Tanner looks at the empirical support for the so-called success sequence, a set of life choices that seems to allow those who follow it a good chance to avoid poverty. Much evidence supports the idea that people who finish high school, get a job, get married, and only then have kids are unlikely to be poor. But Tanner finds that this formula sidesteps a number of very difficult questions.

Response Essays

  • Isabel V. Sawhill agrees with much in Michael Tanner’s lead essay; to her way of thinking, following the “success sequence” is definitely correlated with success. But is it because these actions yield success? Or is it because people who would succeed anyway are more likely to follow them? We may even give a partial yes to both questions. She questions, however, the role that Tanner assigns to individual agency, finding it much less than what she might expect for a libertarian.

  • W. Bradford Wilcox is surprised to find Michael Tanner accepting the importance of structural factors in the origin of poverty. Although Wilcox agrees that these factors are important, he also stresses individual agency. He argues that marriage is highly consequential in helping younger people escape poverty, and that the causality behind this link is easy to understand: Married couples are much better prepared to face the consequences of childbearing without becoming poor. Young people of all backgrounds still need to hear this message, he argues.

  • Philip N. Cohen argues that marriage is the weak link of the success sequence. While getting married first is indeed good for children, public policy to encourage that step has been a failure. Marriage rates have continued to fall despite proponents’ success in enacting their public policy goals. Cohen doubts that the money has been well spent and he recommends a closer look at the racially charged assumptions behind conservative rhetoric about marriage.