Federal funds to foster healthy marriage have little effect, study finds


Hundreds of millions of dollars in government spending to promote healthy marriages seems to have had little effect on marriage and divorce trends, a new study has found.

The federal government will have spent roughly $800 million on its Healthy Marriage Initiative by the end of the federal fiscal year, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families. The money, drawn from the welfare budget, has funded a range of programs to help couples have better relationships.

But the initiative does not seem to have changed state marriage or divorce rates. Between 2000 and 2010, marriage rates continued to dwindle as the federal money poured into local programs, according to new research from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.


Divorce fell in some states and rose in others, but the patterns were little different in states that spent a lot on the Healthy Marriage Initiative — such as Oklahoma, Arkansas and Wyoming — and states like Rhode Island, West Virginia and Nevada that spent little.

Washington, D.C., is an apparent exception: The district spent more per person on healthy marriages than any of the states and saw its marriage rate rise 35% between 2000 and 2010. But with little evidence of a broader tie between marriage rates and such spending, researchers chalked up that increase to its rapidly changing demographics.

All in all, “there’s no bump up or down in these figures,” National Center for Family and Marriage Research co-director Susan L. Brown said. “That does call into question: What are the measurable benefits?”

The study examined more than $600 million in federal funding spent between 2000 and 2010, including early demonstration projects.

A decade ago, then-Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Wade F. Horn told a Senate committee that teaching relationship skills could “increase the odds that couples will form and sustain healthy marriages.” Children raised in “healthy married households” were less likely to endure poverty or commit crimes, Horn said.

The new research adds to a long-standing debate over the effort and whether government can or should promote better marriages as a way to combat poverty. Some supporters argue that marriage rates are an inadequate measure because the goal is not to increase weddings but to improve existing relationships so that children are better off.

Gauging marriage and divorce “is really a narrow view of the benefits,” said Robyn Cenizal, project director of the federally funded National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families. If someone goes to such classes and realizes their relationship is unhealthy, “choosing not to get married is actually a good thing,” Cenizal said.


Others questioned whether tracking changes at the state level was the best way to gauge programs that tend to be small and experimental. For example, the nonprofit Healthy Relationships California taught nearly 29,000 people last fiscal year using the federal funds — “a drop in the bucket in terms of the number of people in California,” its president, Patty Howell, said. Her group found that couples were more satisfied with their relationships, but Howell said such changes wouldn’t show up in California statistics.

Federal research zeroing in on particular programs has also shown lukewarm results, however: Although an Oklahoma program showed promise, other classes had scant effect on whether unmarried couples had better relationships or stayed together. Classes for married couples had “small positive effects” on their relationships, although couples were no more likely to remain married a year later, another federally sponsored study found.

“The positive effects have generally been small,” Brigham Young University professor Alan J. Hawkins said. But “we’re still on the very steep part of the learning curve.”

Hawkins and other researchers recently found such spending had small but positive effects on the percentage of married adults at the state level, but several other scholars have challenged those findings because the effects evaporate if Washington, D.C., is excluded. Many brand the experiment a failure.

With food stamps and other assistance going under the knife, “I’m not sure this is the time to continue diverting some of those precious dollars to programs that don’t seem to be working,” Binghamton University psychology professor Matthew D. Johnson said. “As scientists, we need to listen to the data.”