Healthy Marriage Programs: Learning What Works

By Dion, M. Robin | The Future of Children, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Healthy Marriage Programs: Learning What Works


Dion, M. Robin, The Future of Children


Summary

Evidence of public and private interest in programs designed to strengthen the institution of marriage and reduce the number of children growing up without both their parents is growing. Robin Dion addresses the question of whether such programs can be effective, especially among disadvantaged populations.

She begins by describing a variety of marriage education programs. Although new to the social welfare umbrella, such programs have existed for several decades. Social scientists have evaluated a number of these programs and found them effective in improving relationship satisfaction and communication among romantically involved couples. All the programs tested so far, however, have served primarily white, middle-class, well-educated couples who were engaged or already married.

Because these programs were neither designed for nor tested with disadvantaged populations, Dion observes, there is some question whether they can respond to the unique needs and circumstances of low-income couples, many of whom have multiple stressors and life challenges that can make stable relationships and marriages especially difficult. New research suggests that low-income families often face specific relationship issues that are rarely addressed in the standard programs, such as lingering effects of prior sexual abuse, lower levels of trust and commitment, and lack of exposure to positive role models for marriage. Dion describes the recent efforts of several groups to adapt research-supported marriage education programs or create entirely new curriculums so they are more responsive to and respectful of the needs of low-income families.

Finally, Dion describes ongoing efforts by the Administration for Children and Families to evaluate rigorously the effectiveness of several healthy marriage initiative models being implemented on a large scale across the country. These evaluations will determine whether such programs can work with less advantaged and more culturally diverse families, including whether the impacts on couples' relationships will translate into positive effects on the well-being of their children.

Federal and state legislation enacted over the past decade clearly reflects a growing national interest in reducing the number of children growing up without both parents. In 1996, Congress passed a law allowing states to use part of their welfare block grants to promote the formation of two-parent families and marriage. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced a Healthy Marriage Initiative in 2001, prompted in part by research showing that children fare best when raised by their married parents. (1) As of fall 2004, more than forty states had launched government-sponsored efforts to support marriage and couple relationships. (2) Congress is now considering legislation to provide $200 million annually in competitive grants to states and organizations to advance marriage-related activities, including demonstration programs to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages and research to determine the effectiveness of those programs. (3)

These policies and programs take a range of approaches to promoting the benefits of stable marriage--from changes in divorce laws to services that teach relationship skills, to media campaigns. The central policy question is whether it is possible to implement programs that can increase the number of children who are raised by both parents in healthy and stable marriages, especially within disadvantaged populations known to be at higher risk for family instability. This article describes such marriage programs, discusses the main challenges and opportunities in implementing them in low-income populations, and explains how researchers, policymakers, and practitioners are beginning to learn whether they work.

What Is a Marriage Program?

Broadly speaking, marriage programs provide support, information, and education about healthy relationships and marriage. …

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