Do unmarried poor have bad values or bad jobs?

  • This artwork by Donna Grethen relates to family values.

]<WC1>A large U.S. government-funded experiment to encourage low-income parents to marry, a legacy of the George W. Bush administration's Healthy Marriage Initiative, has just fallen flat.

Even if you were a skeptic all along of the wisdom of the government promoting marriage, as I was, this isn't good news. For the children of these unmarried couples, it is bad news: It portends years of unstable, complicated home lives. The apparent failure of marriage promotion makes the task of finding other ways to help them even more urgent.

In 2005, Congress authorized $150 million a year for promoting healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood. The most visible project was a social experiment to help young, unmarried couples who were expecting a child, or who had just had one, stay together and marry.

The Administration for Children and Families engaged well-known and dedicated researchers and clinicians to design new <WC>"<WC1>relationship skills<WC>"<WC1> programs to improve communication, avoid conflict and build trust <WC>—<WC1> an approach that had previously seemed to help middle-class couples remain together. With high hopes, it hired a leading research firm, Mathematica Policy Research, to recruit about 5,000 couples in eight sites across the nation.

Half of the couples, chosen at random, were offered the program and some additional services, at an average cost of $11,000 a couple. The other half weren't offered the program and served as a control group. Both sets of couples were followed for three years.

The agency released the long-awaited final results on Nov. 30: Relationship-skills education had failed to contain the forces that pull young, unmarried couples apart. Couples who were offered the program were no more likely to have remained together or to have married than were those who weren't offered it.

Nor was there a difference in relationship quality between the two groups. Only the Oklahoma site showed some positive effects. Attendance was not good: Just 55 percent of couples in the program ever showed up for a relationship-skills session. Even among those who did, there was little evidence that the program had an effect.

<WC>As with <WC1>many other liberal social scientists, I'm uncomfortable with having government favor one form of family life over others. Yet I also am convinced that children do best in stable family environments and that repeated parental breakups and <WC>"<WC1>repartnering<WC>"<WC1> can be harmful to them. Stable families don't have to involve a marriage, but in the United States (unlike, say, Sweden) cohabiting relationships don't last very long. Marriage is the way that most American parents maintain stable bonds.

Only 57 percent of couples in the program were still romantically involved after three years. Many of their children will see a succession of parents' new partners moving in and out of their homes. Some will grow up in complex families with full-siblings, step-siblings, half-siblings, parents and parent-figures spread across several households.

Yet the lesson of the marriage-promotion experiment shouldn't be to simply give up trying to encourage stable relationships. There are broad hints elsewhere in American society about where we should go next. While marriage has been in decline among the poor and the working class, it has strengthened among the college-educated middle class.

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