“Building Strong Families” Found Completely Ineffective

Joseph DiNorcia Jr

The evidence is unmistakable: there’s just no amount of government coaxing that will make unmarried couples want to, as Beyoncé would say, “put a ring on it.”

The evidence is unmistakable: there’s just no amount of government coaxing that will make unmarried couples want to, as Beyoncé would say, “put a ring on it.” 

A new report from Mathematica Policy Research, Inc, shows that the relationship skills education programs implemented by the Administration for Children and Families have, with a few exceptions, no effect on participants.  These programs provide “education” and support services to unmarried, low-income, heterosexual couples with newborn babies, and are among the marriage-promotion projects which had been enthusiastically touted by the Bush administration as a magic pill for poverty and unstable families.

Mathematica investigated Building Strong Families (BSF), a project created in the early years of the Bush administration, and found that although its goal was to improve the stability and quality of couples’ relationships and, ultimately, lead to marriage, the programs were almost completely ineffective, striking yet another serious blow to the marriage-promotion industry.

The earliest marriage-promotion initiatives grew out of Clinton-era welfare reforms, but gained their real momentum in the early 2000s with the rise of the Christian Right.  Although the programs were ostensibly designed to combat poverty, they were also inspired by anxiety about the steadily rising numbers of children born to unwed couples.  Even as, in practice, the ideal of the nuclear family as the only acceptable way of life seemed more and more outdated and out of touch, social conservatives became increasingly eager to market the two-parent family as the most effective relief for poverty. Advocates for programs like BSF claimed that by teaching communication and conflict resolution skills, unmarried couples would be better prepared (and more willing) to weather the storms of their child’s infancy together and, from there, enter into holy matrimony. 

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All of this was predicated on the notion that children raised by two married parents would grow into more financially and emotionally stable adults, preventing the need for more complicated and costly social programs for these children later in life, while still upholding the inviolability of heterosexual marriage.  Marriage promotion enthusiasts cited studies that equated high infant mortality, poor school performance and emotional instability with single-parent families, while ignoring that these factors have been more convincingly linked to poverty.  The Obama administration has avoided backing these programs with quite the same gusto, but programs like BSF still continue to receive federal funding.

Needless to say, the failure of initiatives like these is no surprise to anyone who recognizes them for what they are: a thinly veiled promotion of Far Right ideology.  Projects like BSF are futile because they promote specific values, rather than overall well-being.  Their object is, in fact, not effectiveness.  Instead, they seek the successful advancement of a particular moral agenda: heterosexual marriage.

The latest findings eerily echo another Mathematica report, released in 2007, which evaluated abstinence-only-until-marriage programs funded by federal dollars.  These programs were found to be as ineffective in their goal of keeping students abstinent as BSF and other marriage promotion projects were in encouraging marriage; students in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were no more likely than their peers to delay sexual activity or embrace sexual abstinence.  This is because federally funded programs were not designed to help teens make responsible sexual decisions; instead, they were designed to promote an ideal that sex within heterosexual marriage was the only acceptable lifestyle choice.   Unsurprisingly, young people ultimately rejected these notions. 

Ironically, a truly sincere effort to promote healthy families and informed sexual decision-making could begin in the same place, with comprehensive education on sex and relationships aimed at youth.  Programs like BSF don’t work, in part because they target couples too late and provide relationship advice to low-income adults who need an entirely different set of resources.  Comprehensive sexuality education,  on the other hand, promotes communication and conflict resolution skills from an early age so that young people can, later in life, create healthy relationships and choose when and how they want to undertake new challenges like having children or getting married.

Imparting these lessons to young people through schools makes sense, also, from a practical standpoint.  One of the obvious flaws of the BSF project was that low-income couples with a newborn child often are unable to commit, either in terms of time or energy, to such an intensive relationship education program.  Incorporating such skills into public education at an earlier age, however, is a much more effective way of deploying federal resources toward encouraging stable and happy relationships later in life.  Instead of devaluing single mothers, demonizing teens (particularly women) for having sex, failing to promote independence, and completely ignoring or marginalizing LGBT individuals, comprehensive sexuality education can provide people with the education and tools that they need to start families when they have the financial and emotional means.  Of course, these programs would involve education about healthy marriages and sexual abstinence, but these choices would not be cast as intrinsically virtuous; rather, they would be presented as what they are, one option among many.

The two Mathematica reports, read together, illustrate the extent to which we will fail to improve the lives of American families if the federal government continues to fund these dogmatic and ultimately unsuccessful projects.  We can only hope that the ineffectiveness of marriage promotion programs will be recognized swiftly, and that resources can be redirected to projects that will actually advance health and well-being, instead of a moral agenda.

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