Response to Marriage May Not be the Magic Bullet

Response to Marriage May Not be the Magic Bullet.

By Julie M. Baumgardner, MS, CFLE

National Association for Relationship and Marriage Education Board Chair

President and CEO of First Things First


Kristi Williams, associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, recently published a brief arguing that it is not necessarily beneficial for single mothers and their children for these women to marry.  This in response to concerns over using taxpayer money to encourage marriage as one way to help single mothers and their kids climb out of poverty.


First, the funding Williams is referencing actually was designated to reach people at various stages in life including, but not limited to, low income, single moms.  In many instances, the money was and is being used to prevent exactly what Williams describes in her brief.  Allowable activities included: teaching healthy dating relationship skills in high schools, teaching unmarried adults about healthy and unhealthy relationships, teaching strategies to promote healthy marriage to those interested in marriage or already married, and classes for non-married couples expecting a child together (these classes were designed to encourage healthy marriage between the biological parents). The initiative in question also had included job/career advancement efforts that also includes relationship skills. In fact, on the latter point, it is widely understood that various aspects of individual’s romantic lives have the potential to derail the efforts of teens and adults to succeed educationally and vocationally. One disastrous, romantic relationship avoided could make the difference between someone getting ahead or being left permanently behind.


The research is clear that women who have children out of wedlock and then seek to marry have a much more complicated go of it, and if they do marry, in many instances those marriages do not last.  What Williams fails to mention is, many of the people who participated in the programs offered by these initiatives (a) have never been taught relationship skills and don’t have the slightest inkling of what a healthy relationship or marriage looks like and (b) are often romantically involved with the father of their child and value marriage as a life goal, but never really thought of marriage making a difference in their lives or the life of their child.


These classes offered through the healthy marriage and fatherhood demonstration grants empowered people with knowledge about the benefits of healthy relationships, healthy and lasting marriages, and the signs and symptoms of unhealthy relationships—along with the necessary relationship skills which don’t just impact a marriage relationship but can impact every aspect of life.  It may be, in part, that these women can’t find men who are “good marriage material,” as some have said.  But too often, these women themselves are not ready for success in marriage because they do not have the skills necessary for healthy relationships and have little idea how to select a suitable mate and co-parent for themselves.  Just as importantly, some have little knowledge about how to avoid destructive or low quality relationships.  These same issues hold for many individuals, whether economically disadvantaged or not, but the negative consequences are greater for those without resources. 


Research released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in December 2010 concerning Family Structure and Child Health and Wellbeing clearly indicates that children who live in a home with their married mother and father are generally healthier, more likely to have access to health care and are less likely to have definite or severe emotional or behavioral difficulties than children living in non-nuclear families.  Sometimes, that success comes from the parents who were able to succeed at marriage having more means and abilities to successfully provide for their children. But some of the reason for the difference marriage has made, at least historically, is that marriage has come before children. It is not that marriage has magical powers; marriage ahead of child bearing makes it far more likely that two people having a child together have already made a commitment to each other that has the potential to sustain raising that child together. Because of this, I agree with some of Williams’ assertion in that successful efforts to prevent unplanned pregnancies and reduce the chances of couples having children who have no commitment for raising a child together can surely help. But so can efforts to help educate and train people for how to succeed in marriage.


Williams cites a study of 7,000 women, but these are not 7,000 women who went through the taxpayer funded classes.  Furthermore, Williams cites the studies by MDRC, Mathematica, etc. as showing dismal results from 8 of these government funded demonstration projects, however, many of those included in their study did not complete the classes.  There were also incredible differences in participation rates, dosage and delivery of services.  In the large study with unmarried couples having a baby, the Oklahoma site was the only site to have a decent test of the intervention, and in that site, unmarried couples having a child in the intervention group were 20 percent more likely to still be together as a family 3 years following the intervention. That is a large impact on a key outcome related to family stability for these very vulnerable couples. In the other large study, where services were directed toward married couples with children who were also at very low incomes, there were modest, significant impacts for impacts on marital quality across the study. Many people assume that there is consistent evidence for positive impacts from most government programs. This is not only not the case, positive impacts are rare in such rigorous, large government evaluations. Thus, while many have talked as if these two large studies had no impacts, that is not true, and impacts in such studies are generally rather rare. Compared to many evaluations of government programs, one could take the existing findings as quite encouraging. 


Williams further cites evidence that low-income women, like most Americans, want to get and stay married, but they hesitate because they are realistic about how challenging it will be to have a successful marriage amid severe economic strain.  The economic strain often is due at least in part to the government penalties low income women face if they choose to marry the father of their children. There are many policies that economically punish couples from pursuing the aspiration to marry, which should, instead, be something encouraged by the government. Among other things, marriage is one way to strengthen the declaration between two individuals to want to raise their child together. 

Williams suggests that the government might “get more bang for their buck” if it took the $150 million that is currently being used to fund marriage and fatherhood initiatives and used it to fund programs to improve the financial futures of young, low income women, including helping to reduce unintended pregnancies and subsidizing child care for children three years old and younger.  Currently, the government spends nearly $1 trillion annually on 80 services for poor and low-income Americans including subsidizing child care.  


In a critique of concerns raised in an article last year, Scott Stanley (University of Denver) put the costs in perspective in this way: 


It is worth examining the rough costs per year of federal programs for TANF, Food Stamps, Jobs Training Programs, and Housing Vouchers in comparison to the money that has been spent on attempts to try something new.   As a percentage of those budgets for things like food, housing, jobs training, etc., the costs of the healthy marriage and fatherhood programs reflect less than 1/10th of one percent of those budgets. Just focusing on the TANF program alone, the cost of the relationship oriented efforts runs about ½ of 1 percent per year.


For TANF, those numbers look like this:     

$   100,000,000  (current, CRE part of these recent efforts—not including fatherhood)

$   17,270,000,000  (TANF budget for 2011; this is just the block grant part. Overall, it’s higher.)


Hence, there is a modest budget being directed toward trying some of these newer strategies, and many of the strategies being supported are consistent with some of the goals Williams identifies. 


According to the 2010 Census, only 6 percent of children under the age of 18 living in a home with their two married biological were living in poverty compared to over 40 percent of children under the age of 18 who lived with their single mother.  To say that we need to stop promoting the benefits of marriage is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.  There is no question that this is a multifaceted problem with a multifaceted answer.  As Dr. Ruby Payne outlines in her book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, poverty is not just financial.  It can also be growing up in a home without the influence of a father.  Preventing unplanned pregnancies is certainly part of the equation as is teaching healthy relationship skills and the benefits of marriage.