March 30, 2004 | Backgrounder on Family and Marriage
In response to these concerns, President George W. Bush has proposed the Healthy Marriage Initiative to promote and encourage strong marriages. The proposed program would provide $300 million annually in federal and state Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) money to state-level programs that promote marriage and marriage skills, particularly among low-income and "fragile" families. All participation in the President's marriage program would be voluntary. The program would utilize existing marriage-skills education that has proven effective in decreasing conflict--and increasing happiness and stability--among target couples.
However, critics of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative often assert that such a program would encourage or force vulnerable women into violent and dangerous relationships. Specifically, critics argue that a substantial portion of many 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, thereby increasing the rate of domestic abuse.
Opponents of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative claim that the policy will target women who are likely to be in abusive relationships. Critics also charge that the marriage program will push these vulnerable women further into dangerous and violent relationships and possibly even endanger their lives. For example, the NOW Legal Defense Fund asserts:
Because of the prevalence of intimate violence among women receiving public assistance, promotion of marriage will jeopardize the safety and lives of women and children. As many as 60 percent of welfare recipients are survivors of domestic violence. Marriage-promotion programs, which target a population that is made up to such a large degree of women who are domestic violence survivors, can have disastrous results.... [I]f [the healthy marriage initiative] goes forward, survivors may well be coerced into abusive marriages that they may not survive.3
These ominous claims are based on a misunderstanding of marriage-promotion programs and the characteristics of the couples who would participate in them. First, the figure that 60 percent of welfare mothers are "survivors of domestic violence" indicates that a high percentage of welfare mothers have experienced some level of domestic violence at some point during their lives; it does not mean that 60 percent of welfare mothers are experiencing violence in a current relationship. The figures for current (or recent) domestic abuse among welfare mothers are considerably lower: Some 20 percent to 30 percent have experienced violence in a current relationship or within the past year. 4 While these figures are still regrettably high, they indicate that most welfare mothers, at present, are not in abusive relationships.
Furthermore, participation in marriage programs will be voluntary; no one will be "coerced" to participate. In addition, marriage-promotion programs do not assume that all relationships should be saved. In fact, rather than pushing women further into abusive relationships, the programs would urge women to leave situations where significant abuse is occurring. Marriage education programs teach couples how to resolve disagreements peacefully: A primary effect of these programs is to de-escalate conflict and significantly reduce strife and acrimony within relationships. Consequently, the programs have been shown to reduce domestic violence, not increase it.5
The NOW Legal Defense Fund also incorrectly assumes that the main target group of the Healthy Marriage Initiative would be older, single mothers on welfare (i.e., mothers enrolled in the TANF program). However, because most older welfare mothers have relationships with the fathers of their children that collapsed years ago, they would not be a suitable target group for marriage-promotion programs. Instead, the Healthy Marriage Initiative will provide skills to unmarried couples before their relationships turn bitter and acrimonious. By providing skills training at an early stage in a relationship, marriage-promotion programs will help couples to build happy and stable families in the future.
The Healthy Marriage Initiative will focus primarily on unmarried, young adult couples around the time of their child's birth or--even better--prior to their child's conception. These couples have been referred to as "fragile families." The domestic abuse rate among "fragile family" couples--the targets for healthy marriages programs--is only around 2 percent. This represents one-tenth of the domestic abuse level found among current welfare mothers. By helping these couples build enduring and harmonious relationships, the Healthy Marriage Initiative can substantially reduce future domestic abuse.
The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study provides the best information about the low-income couples who would be the focal point of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative. The study, which has been conducted by a team of researchers at Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Columbia University's Social Indicators Survey Center, is a joint academic survey of new parents. The study is based on a nationally representative sample of parents--both married and unmarried--at the time of a child's birth.6
Contrary to the views of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, marriage tends to protect women from domestic abuse rather than increasing it. In general, domestic violence is more common in cohabiting relationships than in marriages. Analysis from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), administered by the Department of Justice, also shows that mothers who are, or have been, married are far less likely to suffer from violent crime than are mothers who have never married. Specifically, data from the NCVS survey show that:7
The pattern of cohabiting relationships among low-income women is a major factor in the increased risk for partner violence. More than half of all children in poverty come from homes with a never-married mother, and nearly two-thirds of welfare dependence occurs among households with mothers who have never married.10 By intervening at an early point in the lives of women, marriage programs would seek to break this cycle of cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing. They would provide the skills and training needed to help women form loving, stable, and committed relationships before becoming pregnant or moving in with a violent or abusive partner.
The 1996 welfare reform law established national goals of reducing out-of-wedlock childbearing and increasing two-parent families. President Bush's Healthy Marriage Initiative would seek to meet these original goals of welfare reform by proposing--as part of welfare reauthorization--a new model program to promote strong marriages. His proposed program would seek to increase healthy marriage by providing at-risk individuals and couples with:
All participation in the President's marriage program would be voluntary. The initiative would utilize existing marriage-skills education programs that have proven effective in decreasing conflict and increasing happiness and stability among couples. These programs have also been shown to be effective in reducing domestic violence.11 The pro-marriage initiative would not merely seek to increase marriage rates among target couples, but would also provide ongoing support to help at-risk couples maintain healthy marriages over time.
A well-designed marriage initiative would target participants early in their lives, when attitudes and relationships are initially being formed. Typically, such marriage-promotion programs would provide information to at-risk high school students about the long-term value of marriage. They would teach relationship skills to unmarried adult couples before the women become pregnant--with a focus on preventing pregnancy before couples have made a commitment to healthy marriages. The programs would also provide marriage-skills training and relationship education to unmarried couples at the "magic moment" of a child's birth and would offer marriage-skills training to low-income married couples to improve the quality of their marriage and to reduce the likelihood of divorce.
The primary focus of these marriage programs would be preventative, not reparative. They would seek 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 can increase child well-being and adult happiness and reduce child poverty and welfare dependence.
Critics of the President's initiative often claim that there is no evidence showing that the marriage education and enrichment programs envisioned by the Healthy Marriage Initiative would work. This charge is simply false. There is overwhelming evidence that programs that provide marriage-skills training help couples to 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--some of which have been around for more than 30 years--have significantly strengthened the marriages of the couples that have taken advantage of such programs.12 These studies--integrating findings from well over 100 separate evaluations--show that a wide variety of marriage-strengthening programs can reduce strife, improve communication, increase parenting skills, increase stability, and enhance marital happiness.
This scientific research demonstrates that marriage programs--whether they are called marital preparation, enhancement, counseling, or skills training--are effective. These studies make a strong case that marriages are not merely enabled to survive, but can also thrive when couples learn the skills necessary to make their relationships work. Moreover, the research shows that these programs are effective in a variety of socioeconomic classes. Polls also indicate that the overwhelming majority of low-income couples that are at risk for out-of-wedlock childbearing or marital breakup would like to participate in programs that would help them improve their relationships.
The institution of marriage has been shown to be overwhelmingly beneficial to children, adults, and society. However, for more than 50 years, government policy has discouraged marriage through the penalties inherent in the means-tested welfare system. There is now a broad consensus that this trend should be reversed and that government should promote healthy marriage. Marriage promotion has the potential to significantly decrease poverty and dependence, increase child well-being and adult happiness, and provide the safest environment for women and children.
Opponents of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative, who claim that such a program would force women into violent and dangerous relationships by coercing or encouraging them to get married, misrepresent the goals of the program. By specifically targeting young adult men and women and at-risk high school students with information about the long-term value of marriage, marriage programs are preventative, not reparative, in nature. They seek 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 can increase the well-being of both children and adults and can 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.
1. Roughly three-quarters of the couples who are unmarried at the time of their child's birth are cohabiting or romantically involved. The domestic violence rate for such cohabiting or romantically involved couples, who would be the main target for pro-marriage programs, is slightly less than 2 percent.
5. Patrick F. Fagan, Robert W. Patterson, and Robert E. Rector, "Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education Works," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1606, October 25, 2002.
6. The initial, or baseline, interviews for the Fragile Families project began in Austin, Texas, and Oakland, California, in the spring of 1998 and were completed in 18 other cities by the fall of 2000. The baseline set of data includes 4,898 completed interviews with mothers (representing 3,712 non-marital births and 1,186 marital births) and 3,830 completed interviews with fathers. The national sample from 20 U.S. cities is representative of all non-marital births to parents in these cities as well as parents residing in U.S. cities with populations over 200,000. The baseline survey was conducted by interviewing new mothers at the hospital within 48 hours of giving birth; fathers were interviewed either at the hospital or elsewhere as soon as possible after the birth. Three follow-up interviews are to be conducted when the children are approximately 12 months, 30 months, and 48 months of age. The results of the first follow-up interview were released in 2003.