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Executive Summary: Reducing Domestic Violence: How the Healthy Marriage Initiative Can Help

By and

In the United States today, one child in three is born outside marriage. The decline of marriage is a prominent cause of child poverty, welfare dependence, and many other social problems. In response to these concerns, President George W. Bush has proposed a Healthy Marriage Initiative to promote and encourage strong marriages. The proposed program would provide $300 million in federal and state Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) money to state-level programs that promote marriage and marriage-skills training, particularly among low-income and "fragile" families. All participation in the President's marriage program would be voluntary. The project would utilize existing marriage-skills programs that have proven effective in decreasing conflict--and increasing happiness and stability--among target couples.

Erroneous Criticisms of the Healthy Marriage Initiative Critics of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative assert that such a program would encourage or force vulnerable women into violent and dangerous relationships. Specifically, critics argue that a substantial portion of low-income women who would participate in the marriage program are in abusive relationships and that the program would push women into marriages with abusive men, thus increasing the rate of domestic abuse.

These claims are erroneous for a number of reasons:

  1. Marriage education programs that would be funded under the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative have been shown to reduce--not increase--domestic abuse. In Oklahoma's prototype program, 14,000 individuals have received training, and not a single instance of domestic abuse linked to the program has been reported.
  2. The primary target groups for the healthy marriage programs would be unmarried couples at the time of a child's birth or young, at-risk couples prior to conception. The rate of domestic abuse in these groups is extremely low--around 2 percent.
  3. The prevalence of domestic abuse among low-income women is often exaggerated by citing figures on whether or not a woman has ever been abused in her lifetime rather than whether or not abuse is occurring in a current romantic relationship.
  4. Critics incorrectly assume that the target population for the Healthy Marriage Initiative would be older, single mothers in the TANF program. Generally, older welfare mothers have already severed ties with their children's fathers. Such relationships have often been terminated for several years: These mothers, therefore, are not good candidates for a marriage program. Healthy marriage programs would seek to improve the stability and quality of relationships for low-income women at a younger age. Couples at this stage of life--generally termed "fragile families"--have relatively good prospects for entering into healthy, stable marriages.

    As noted, the rate of domestic violence among these couples is low--around 2 percent. It is true that the rate of current domestic abuse suffered by older mothers on welfare is far higher--around 20 percent to 30 percent--but these mothers would not be a target group of the marriage initiative.

    Thus, the assertion that welfare mothers experience high rates of domestic abuse is irrelevant to an assessment of the Healthy Marriage Initiative. By intervening at a younger age, the Healthy Marriage Initiative would seek to improve the well-being of children and to reduce future problems of child poverty and welfare dependence.
  5. Many low-income mothers are trapped in patterns of serial cohabitation--moving through a sequence of fractured, failed relationships with men. It is within this pattern of serial cohabitation that domestic violence is most likely to occur. The Healthy Marriage Initiative could help prevent couples from falling prey to this destructive pattern by giving them the knowledge and skills needed to build healthy, stable marriages. The proper time for such training is when couples are at a relatively young age--either prior to conception or at the time of a child's birth--before self-defeating patterns of distrust and acrimony have developed.

    By helping couples to avoid the pitfalls of serial failed relationships, the Healthy Marriage Initiative will substantially reduce, rather than increase, domestic violence. Indeed, unless couples are equipped with the skills they need to develop healthy relationships, it is difficult to imagine how the current rates of domestic violence in low-income communities can be reduced.

There is overwhelming evidence that marriage-skills training helps couples increase happiness, improve their relationships, and avoid negative behaviors that can lead to marital breakup. No fewer than 29 peer-reviewed social science journal articles provide ample evidence (from actual experience) that marriage education, training, and counseling programs significantly strengthen the marriages of couples that take advantage of such programs. These studies--integrating findings from well over 100 separate evaluations--illustrate that a wide variety of marriage-strengthening programs can reduce strife and conflict, improve communication, increase parenting skills, increase stability, and enhance marital happiness.

Conclusion
By specifically targeting young adult men and women and at-risk high school students with information about the long-term value of marriage, the Healthy Marriage Initiative is preventative, not reparative, in nature. It seeks to prevent the isolation and poverty of welfare mothers by intervening at an early point--before a pattern of broken relationships and welfare dependence has emerged. By fostering better life decisions and stronger relationship skills, marriage programs will increase the well-being of both children and adults and will reduce the likelihood of poverty, welfare dependence, and violent relationships.

Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and Melissa G. Pardue is a Policy Analyst in the Domestic Policy Studies Department, at the Heritage Foundation.

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