Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Are Federally Supported Relationship Education Programs for Lower-Income Individuals and Couples Working? A REVIEW OF EVALUATION RESEARCH

Academic journal article AEI Paper & Studies

Are Federally Supported Relationship Education Programs for Lower-Income Individuals and Couples Working? A REVIEW OF EVALUATION RESEARCH

Article excerpt

In the early years of the George W. Bush administration, then--Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Wade F. Horn helped launch a controversial policy initiative to provide relationship education services to lower-income individuals and couples. The services were aimed at helping them form and sustain healthy relationships and stable marriages. A clinical child psychologist by training, Horn wanted federal policy to attend to the reality that far too many children were deprived of their birthright of a stable, two-parent family. Family instability contributes to a host of negative outcomes for children (and adults), and Horn's Administration for Children and Families (ACF) budget was picking up a sizable portion of the price tag to try to ameliorate the associated problems. (2)

As the newest element of a thick federal policy portfolio to help lower-income families, the federal Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education (HMRE) initiative, as it became labeled, funded hundreds of community organizations to provide classes and support services to help individuals and couples gain the knowledge and skills that can strengthen their relationships. (3) At first, the initiative's critics called it government "marriage promotion," a dog whistle that is still commonly used today. They argued that classes would encourage couples in unhealthy relationships to marry and subject women to greater risk of domestic violence. They also argued that the government should not tell people what to do in their most personal and intimate decisions, stigmatizing one family form over others.

In the initiative's first few years, Horn was a roving public relations specialist, clarifying what the initiative was and was not. He explained that the initiative stressed healthy relationships, though he did not back down on asserting the optimal benefits of stable marriages for children and adults. (He joked that he was a one-man desensitization crew in the federal government, getting policymakers comfortable with using the "m-word.") These ACF-supported programs were required to show how they were dealing with the risk of domestic violence; many built formal partnerships with domestic violence experts in their communities. Horn stressed that participation was voluntary and that no one was forced to take classes.

Classes focused on a wide variety of ages and circumstances. They targeted more disadvantaged, at-risk populations, although they did not require a means test to participate. Some classes taught basic relationship literacy to single youth and young adults. Many programs focused on unmarried parents who wanted to strengthen their relationships for the sake of the children in their union. Most classes had messages about the value of commitment and marriage for children--thus the often-used pejorative label that the HMRE was government "marriage promotion."

But the programs have focused mostly on building healthy relationships, regardless of relationship status, and do not push unmarried couples to marry. (They even embraced the reality that classes would cause some couples in unhealthy relationships to break up sooner rather than later.) (4) Some classes targeted married couples, many of which were struggling. Some programs specialized in reaching remarried couples that are at higher risk for divorce.

During the initiative's early years, classes did not target same-sex couples, which was controversial. This softened during the Barack Obama administration, and some same-sex couples did participate in these programs. ACF funded a project that developed a framework for developing programs for same-sex couples. (5) The Obama administration also encouraged these funded relationship education services to partner with other social services that could be helpful, especially employment training.

Where are we after 15 years? Is this policy initiative working or at least showing promise? In this report, I briefly review criticism of the federal HMRE initiative and the early death vigils associated with that criticism. …

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