Response to Federal Funds to foster healthy marriage have little effect, study finds.

$800 million initiative does not seem to have changed the state of marriage or divorce rates.

As a current grantee and national leader in the field of marriage and fathering, I have to ask the question to those who are saying the $800 million has not changed the state of marriage or divorce rates – How do you know? 

This article cites numerous issues with the funding including: No bump up or down in figures after just eight years.  There is great difficulty in pinning evaluations on divorce as an outcome at the macro level.  It appears that this government funding is being held to a different set of standards than other funding.  Is it even reasonable to believe that our country would see dramatic results after only eight years?  We are early in this type of policy initiative and there are actually promising results compared to other government programs.  Head Start has been around since 1965 and 49 years later there is still sizable debate about its overall effectiveness in preparing children for school, yet it continues to be funded year after year.

There are a host of issues being dealt with by the Healthy Marriage and Fatherhood grants, not the least of which is people actually coming to class and learning information and skills.  Many learn for the first time the qualities of a healthy relationship, what abuse looks like in a relationship, thus making the decision not to marry someone or that their marriage is seriously derailed, but still viable.   The types of services that are being provided can lower the odds of divorce and/or increase the odds of a couple marrying successfully in addition to actually helping a couple in a really damaging marriage realize that they need to separate or divorce.

In the first 5-year healthy marriage demonstration grant, First Things First in Chattanooga, Tennessee had more than 500 couples go through the class for couples in distress.  Research conducted by Wilkins Research found that 92 percent of the couples who completed the class made the decision to work on their marriage instead of divorcing.  These couples thought divorce was the only answer after trying all of what they knew to do. They did not realize there were a number of tools missing from their tool belt that could help them get their marriage back on track.  FTF is not the only grantee experiencing success in this area.  Research indicates that every divorce costs a community conservatively $30,000.  Using that figure, FTF helped save their community and state in excess of $14 million.

Federal research was cited that showed “lukewarm results.” This research was conducted before models and best practices were established.  We are early in this field in terms of figuring out what is most effective and where it makes the most sense to concentrate our effort.  The BSF results are actually impressive for the site that performed really well, and while results are modest in the SHM research, there are many significant findings and this is rare for government studies of this type. 

This funding is impacting hundreds of thousands of people across this country.  For example, in California alone Healthy Relationships California served 28,885 people in the last year.  To Mr. Johnson’s point about taking this funding and using it for food stamps and other assistance, according to the latest USDA maximum allotment for food stamps, a family of three is given $497 a month.  If the $800 million were to be taken and used for this, only 16,716 families would benefit.

With the Healthy Marriage and Fatherhood demonstration grants, it isn’t just the participants who benefit.  Communities, schools, neighborhoods, companies and families all benefit when people learn how to have healthy dating relationships and marriages.


Julie M. Baumgardner, MS, CFLE

President and CEO, First Things First

Board Chair of the National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education