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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Decreasing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage to Reduce Poverty
Paul R. Amato Rebecca A. Maynard

Increase the Share of Couples Receiving Marriage and Relationship Education Services

Marriage education and relationship programs are designed to improve couple communication, teach conflict resolution skills, increase mutual social support between partners, strengthen commitment, help troubled couples avoid divorce, and generally improve the quality and stability of marriages. Numerous reviews of evidence indicate that the programs are effective for many couples.46 A recent meta-analysis examined eleven studies that randomly assigned participants to treatment and control groups, and two quasiexperimental studies of the effects of marital education programs on problem-solving skills, marital conflict, and marital satisfaction. 47 Twelve of the thirteen studies found significant differences favoring couples who received the treatment. The mean effect size across all experimental and quasi-experimental studies was 0.80 of a standard deviation— a large effect size that is equivalent to a 12 point difference on an IQ test. Across all marital outcomes, the typical couple who received marital education scored higher than 79 percent of couples who did not. With respect to relationship stability, a German study found that after three years, 9 percent of intervention couples had broken up compared with 22 percent of control couples.48 Similarly, a U.S. study found that after five years, only 4 percent of intervention couples had broken up, compared with 25 percent of nonintervention couples.49 Although some studies do not show benefits in relationship stability, most show benefits in relationship quality.50

Increasing the share of couples who receive marital and relationship education is likely to improve marital quality, decrease the frequency of divorce and, correspondingly, decrease the share of children shifted into poverty. Among the limits of the studies cited earlier is that most focused on middle-class, white couples, and few followed couples for more than a few years. These limits were partly overcome by a recent large, representative survey of currently and formerly married people in four states: Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Arizona.51 The survey found that couples who participated in any type of marital education program before marriage were 18 percent less likely than other couples to be divorced after twenty years. And among couples who did not divorce, premarital education was associated with higher marital satisfaction and less marital conflict. Moreover, the estimated effects of premarital education held for low-income as well as high-income couples.52

Not surprisingly, in view of such evidence policymakers are paying increasing attention to marriage. Since launching the Healthy Marriage Initiative in 2002, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has backed programs to provide marital education and relationship skills training on a voluntary basis to interested individuals and couples, as well as public education efforts that emphasize the value of marriage education programs, and research to evaluate these services.53 Some of these initiatives have focused particularly on African American, Latino, and Native American populations.

In February 2006, President Bush signed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, which reauthorized the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Over a period of five years, the law allocates $100 million a year to promote healthy marriage and another $50 million a year to promote responsible fatherhood. In May 2006, the ACF announced the availability of Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grants, which may be used for public advertising campaigns about the value of marriage and the skills needed to increase marital quality and stability; high school courses on the value of marriage, relationship skills, and budgeting; premarital education programs for engaged couples and those interested in marriage; and marriage enhancement and relationship skills programs for married couples.54 By October 2006, the ACF had funded more than 300 individual programs to promote healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood.

We support expanding marriage and relationship education. Statistics on the share of couples who receive such education before marriage are hard to locate, but the four-state survey already noted put the figure at about 40 percent of recently married couples, and an estimate from a national telephone survey conducted in 1996 was nearly identical.55 We propose doubling that share to 80 percent.

About 2.3 million couples married in 2004, according to the National Center on Health Statistics.56 If 40 percent received marital and relationship education, that would come to 0.92 million couples. Doubling the share to 80 percent would mean that another 0.92 million couples would participate in these programs each year. We recommend that states go beyond this goal, however. Marital and relationship education programs appear to be beneficial for married couples as well. Indeed, one study found that they were most beneficial for couples who had been married for between five and ten years.57 They may also be useful for cohabiting couples, as well as single people with an interest in marriage. We recommend providing these services to roughly a million married couples as well, bringing the total number of additional couples receiving the services to approximately 2 million a year.

Raising the share of people who take these courses will require increasing the number of people qualified to teach them. The Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI) serves as an example of one way to increase the supply of teachers.58 The OMI has trained many people to provide the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), a commonly used program developed by Howard Markman, Scott Stanley, and their colleagues. 59 Trained providers in Oklahoma include state employees from the Department of Human Services, the Health Department, and the State University Extension Service. Oklahoma also provides free training for volunteers from the community, including mental health practitioners, marriage and family therapists, social workers, and ministers. In exchange for free training, the volunteers agree to deliver a minimum of four workshops to the public at no cost.

In recent years, the PREP program has been given to more than 100,000 people throughout Oklahoma. Although marriage education traditionally has been provided through churches, the availability of secular sources makes it possible to serve couples who are not religious or planning a church wedding. And though PREP was developed for middle- class couples planning to marry, Oklahoma has developed a more intensive program for poor, unmarried couples who are expecting a child.60 Other special versions have been adapted for prisoners, Hispanic couples, couples who are adopting a high-risk child, and high school students.

A typical workshop involves about twelve couples. To meet our target of 2 million couples, this would mean adding 167,000 workshops every year. (A typical workshop involves ten to twelve hours of participation, although programs that focus on unmarried couples with children generally involve more time.) Most trained providers hold jobs that limit the number of workshops that they can offer every year. If each provider were to offer three or four workshops over the course of a year, then about 48,000 new providers across the United States would need to be recruited and trained. One major cost that states will face, therefore, involves training marriage education providers.

States must also increase public demand for these services. Public education campaigns are one way to promote the benefits and availability of marriage education programs in the community. Partnering with other organizations in the community, such as churches and civic groups, is another. Lowincome couples, in particular, can be recruited when they apply for public assistance. Getting people to attend the programs, though, is another matter. One way to increase attendance would be to reduce the cost of a marriage license for couples who complete a premarital education workshop taught by a certified provider. Today the cost of a marriage license varies from $10 to more than $100, depending on the state. If a state charges, say, $30 for a marriage license, it could increase the charge to $150 for couples without premarital education and provide the license without charge to those with premarital education. If the state achieves its goal of 80 percent participation by couples about to marry, its net revenue would remain the same. That is, for every 100 couples, 80 would pay nothing and 20 would pay $150. The total would be $3,000 for every 100 couples— the same amount collected as if every couple paid $30. Several states, such as Florida and Oklahoma, already have adopted similar policies.

What would be the implications of providing relationship skills training to an additional 0.92 million couples before they marry, each year? In 2004 the United States recorded some 1 million divorces.61 Assuming, based on the findings of the four-state study already noted, that marriage education lowers the risk of divorce by 18 percent, then expanding premarital education services from 40 percent to 80 percent of couples would eventually result in a decline of about 72,000 divorces annually (or 7.2 percent). Each divorce involves an average of 0.9 children.62 Thus 65,000 fewer children would be entering a single-parent family every year because of marital dissolution. This number seems small compared with the 24 million children now living in single-parent families.63 But the number of children spared the experience of divorce would accumulate annually. After seven or eight years, half a million fewer children would have entered single-parent families through divorce. And these estimates are conservative because they exclude the married couples, cohabiting couples, and single individuals who also would be eligible for these services. Indeed, if states were to provide services to 2 million couples every year, then the estimated reduction in divorce could be 144,000—twice the number indicated above. In addition, because marital education programs not only lower the risk of divorce but also improve the quality of marriage, focusing on declines in divorce alone ignores the benefits for couples who remain married, and hence underestimates the total value of these programs for children.

The economic costs of implementing the proposal would include recruiting and training providers, running public education campaigns to increase the demand for services, and hiring staff to administer the programs. Monitoring and periodically evaluating these interventions will be essential to ensure that quality remains high and that programs do not drift into ineffectiveness. Based on the experiences of many local and state efforts, we estimate that total program costs to provide a basic ten- to twelve-hour marriage and relationship education course would be about $100 per person, or $200 per couple.64 If services are provided to an additional 2 million couples per year, then the total cost to the federal government would be about $400 million. The estimated cost also would be higher if the government paid for additional services, such as expanded counseling services for couples who are contemplating divorce, or longer and more intensive programs focused specifically on poor, unmarried couples with children.

We assume that the states would administer these programs, with the federal government providing the funding either directly or indirectly, if states divert unused TANF funds for this purpose. We believe that it would be most effective for states to administer these services, because marriage and divorce laws are formed at the state level, states have the administrative infrastructure to facilitate largescale service delivery, and states can ensure program consistency across multiple sites. At the same time, state-based programs can adapt services to meet local state needs and engage in experimentation and innovation that may ultimately improve program quality.