The Heritage Foundation

Executive Summary #1606 on Family and Marriage

October 25, 2002

October 25, 2002 | Executive Summary on Family and Marriage

Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education Works

The erosion of marriage has created enormous difficulties for children, parents, and society. Today, one child in three is born out of wedlock. Compared to children born within marriage, children born outside of marriage are overwhelmingly more likely to live in poverty, depend on welfare, and have behavior problems. They are also more likely to suffer depression and physical abuse, fail in school, abuse drugs, and end up in jail.

In response to the overwhelming evidence concerning the harmful consequences of the decline of marriage, the 1996 welfare reform law set a national goal to increase and strengthen two-parent families. To help meet that goal, President George W. Bush wants to set aside $300 million per year for specific programs to strengthen marriage as part of the reauthorization of welfare reform. These programs would teach relationship skills to unmarried couples at the time of pregnancy, with the goal of helping couples develop healthy marriages. The programs would also provide marriage-skills training to low-income married couples to help those couples improve their relationships and avoid marital breakup.

Record of Success. Critics of the President's initiative seldom attack the concept of promoting healthy marriages directly. Instead, they claim that no evidence shows that marriage education and enrichment programs work. This charge is simply false. The evidence is overwhelming:

  • The 29 peer-reviewed social science journal articles cited in this paper provide ample evidence that marriage education, training, and counseling programs--some of which have been around for more than 30 years--significantly strengthen marriage. These studies, which integrate findings from well over 100 separate evaluations, show that a wide variety of marriage programs can reduce strife, improve communication, increase parenting skills, increase stability, and enhance marital happiness.
  • One analysis integrating 85 studies involving nearly 4,000 couples enrolled in more than 20 different marriage enrichment programs found that the average couple, after participating in a program, was better off than more than two-thirds of couples that did not participate.
  • A 1999 meta-analysis of 16 studies of one of the oldest marriage enhancement programs, Couple Communication, observed meaningful program effects with regard to all types of measures: Couples who took the training experienced moderate to large gains in communication skills, marital satisfaction, and other relationship qualities. The average couple, after taking Couple Communication training, was able to out-perform 83 percent of couples who had not participated in the program in the critical area of marital communication.
  • An analysis of the Relationship Enhancement program shows that it significantly improves marital relationships: Participating couples did better than 83 percent of couples that did not participate.
  • A 2002 study documents the effectiveness of premarital inventory questionnaires and counseling in preventing marital distress. This approach yielded a 52 percent increase in the number of couples classified as "most satisfied" with their relationship. Among the remaining couples, more than half improved their assessment of their relationship; among the highest-risk couples, more than 80 percent moved up into a more positive category.
  • A 1993 meta-analysis of marriage and family counseling found that, among 71 studies that compared counseling to no-counseling, couples who took marriage counseling were better off than 70 percent of couples that did not take counseling.
  • An extensive review of the literature on the effectiveness of marital counseling in preventing separation and divorce found dozens of studies demonstrating that counseling was effective in reducing conflict and increasing marital satisfaction.

This research demonstrates that marriage programs are effective and makes the case that marriages can do more than merely survive: They can also thrive when couples learn the skills to make their relationship work. Moreover, the research shows that the programs are effective throughout a variety of socioeconomic classes. Polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of low-income couples at risk of out-of-wedlock childbearing or marital breakup would like to participate in programs that would help them improve their relationships.

Need for Action. The collapse of marriage is a predominant factor behind high rates of child poverty, welfare dependence, and a host of other social problems. However, the welfare system has punished marriage and rewarded single parenthood for a generation. President Bush is seeking to reverse this trend by bringing fathers back into the home rather than pushing them out.

The President's marriage initiative--incorporated in the House-passed welfare bill, H.R. 4737--represents a critical first step in moving beyond the current anti-marriage welfare system. The bill would provide skills training to low-income couples to help them build and sustain healthy marriages. It would also foster experiments in reducing the anti-marriage penalties in welfare programs. If enacted, this legislation would begin the vital task of repairing the fabric of family in low-income communities.

Patrick F. Fagan is William H. G. Fitzgerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues, Robert W. Patterson is a domestic policy consultant, and Robert E. Rector is a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Related Issues: Family and Marriage