Each year, the U.S. government invests hundreds of millions of dollars in education programs designed to promote healthy marriages, with a special focus on poor couples and couples of color. But a new study says the programs are ineffective and should be scrapped, or at least redirected.
This bipartisan domestic policy goes back to the George W. Bush administration, and has been endorsed by the Obama team. The policy followed research suggestions that healthy marriages equal a healthy society.
Researchers from Binghamton University, however, said the problem is that the initial research data that promoted the happy marriage/healthy society relationship was based on data gathered from white and middle-class marriages – and, when applied to poor couples or couples of color, the relationship between a happy marriage and societal improvements falls apart.
The study is published in the current issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association.
“Initially, the rationale for these programs came from policy makers and scholars, who homed in on the association between unmarried parents and poverty that is plainly obvious in the data,” said Dr. Matthew D. Johnson, associate professor of psychology at Binghamton University.
This association led Bush to make the promotion of healthy marriages a central plank of his domestic policy agenda, resulting in the implementation of the Healthy Marriage Initiatives (endorsed by Barack Obama).
“Unfortunately, the data on the success of these programs has started to roll in, and the results have been very disappointing,” Johnson said.
Johnson believes the problem lies in the fact that many of these programs lack grounding in solid science and are allowed to run unchecked. He cites research from two recent multi-site studies as evidence that many of the federal programs that promote healthy marriage need to be suspended – or at the very least, overhauled.
One of these studies focused on over 5,000 couples in eight cities. Researchers examined the benefits of interventions designed to improve the relationships of low-income, unmarried couples who were either pregnant or recently had their first child.
The results indicated that the interventions had no effect in six of the cities, small beneficial effects in one city, and small detrimental effects in another city.
The results of the other outcome study focused on 5,395 low-income married couples and found that those who received the intervention experienced very small improvements in relationship satisfaction, communication, and psychological health but no significant changes in relationship dissolution or cooperative parenting.
Moreover, the interventions didn’t come cheap, costing on average around $9,100 per couple.
Johnson believes different populations and resulting different priorities influenced the program outcomes. A main issue is that the best of these programs – the ones based on scientific findings – were initially studied with middle-class couples while the federal initiatives target poor couples.
And even if the research that formed the basis of these interventions does apply, relationship improvement just doesn’t seem to be a priority for poor couples.
“There is evidence that suggests poor women want to be married and understand the benefits of healthy marriages,” said Johnson.
“But earning enough for basic household expenses, keeping their children safe and working with their children’s overburdened schools are much more urgent concerns, making the idea of focusing on marriage seem self-indulgent if not irrelevant to many poor parents. When faced with a myriad of social issues, building intimate relationships is just not high on their priority lists.”
Johnson said that this doesn’t mean the federal government shouldn’t be funding intimate relationship research. Instead, the government needs to adopt a more multifaceted approach: focus on programs that will ease the stress of poor families and at the same time, fund more rigorous basic research.
“We just don’t have solid predictors for relationship satisfaction for poor couple and couple of color, let alone whether the current marriage models apply,” he said.
Johnson pointed to the National Institutes of Health as being the perfect place to coordinate and sponsor the research, noting “It has a long history of using scientific rigor in decision-making and it would certainly help in achieving the type of results that we’re looking for from these initiatives.”