The millions the federal government has spent on programs aimed at promoting marriage and boosting marriage rates have had little discernible impact on marriage or divorce rates, according to new research from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.
Since 2001, the government will have spent about $800 million on the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) by the end of the fiscal year. That year was when the Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children & Families decided that strengthening marriage was one of the nine main priorities for the agency. Spending increased by $117 million between 2000 and 2010, including a $150 million boost as part of the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, peaking at $142 million for 2009. HMI programs can use the money on marriage education, skills training, and mentoring programs, as well as public advertising campaigns and high school education programs.
Yet over that same time period, the country’s marriage rate continued its “precipitous decline” that started in the 1970s, falling 26 percent over the decade after 2000, the report finds. The divorce rate didn’t see much of a change.
While spending varied considerably on the state level, the same trends mostly held true. “State-level spending on HMIs did not have a significant association with state marriage rates,” the report notes. While the five states that spent the lowest cumulative amount per person on HMI programs experienced declines in their marriage rates between 2000 and 2010, the same was true for four of the five states that spent the most. Washington, D.C. was an outlier, spending $21.68 per person and experiencing a 35 percent increase in the marriage rate.
State spending did have a significant positive association with falling divorce rates, but “the top and bottom spenders share similar divorce trends,” the authors note. Among both the bottom and top spenders, three states saw increases in the divorce rate and two saw decreases. The decreases were also minuscule: they were all 7 percent or less, or in other words, a drop of less than 2 people per 1,000 who were at risk of getting divorced. Nevada was the exception with its 33 percent decrease, or 14 people per 1,000.
A different review of the HMI programs that compared state spending with how many married adults lived in each state found a positive association, yet it all but disappeared when one outlier, Washington, D.C., was removed from the results.
Another independent review of a federal program called Building Strong Families, which gave more than 5,000 unwed couples with children group sessions on relationship skills coupled with support services, not only didn’t find a positive impact but found some negative ones. The program cost an average of $11,000 per couple, but three years later, it had no effect on whether the couples got married or even stayed romantically involved. Worse, the couples in the program were slightly less likely to stay together or live together than those in a control group not participating. Children also saw no more benefit than those in the control group and fathers who participated in the program were actually less likely to spend time with or financially support their children.
There’s also evidence that marriage won’t help the low-income, unmarried mothers these programs are usually aimed at. Recent research found that more than two-thirds of single mothers who married wound up divorced by the time they were ages 35 to 44. This leaves them worse off financially than they would have been if they had stayed single. And those who stay married don’t necessarily see a big benefit, as their unions tend to have “low levels of relationship quality and high rates of instability,” the author notes, and she didn’t find physical or psychological advantages for most of the adolescents born to a single mother who later married.
All of this evidence hasn’t stopped conservatives from offering up marriage as a cure for the country’s high poverty rates, though. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently called it “the greatest tool” for lifting people out of poverty.
What might actually help single mothers living in poverty are things conservatives may have some trouble getting on board with: increased access to contraception and family planning health care, better sex education, and a stronger safety net that includes access to health insurance, better income support, more comprehensive early childhood education, and paid sick and family leave.