Can Uncle Sam Sell Americans on Marriage?

Conservatives think encouraging matrimony is the key to fighting poverty. Problem is, nobody knows how to do it. 
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Republicans have rediscovered the problem of poverty, and the party's stars in Congress and the press have an idea for combating it: More marriages. 

"The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent," Sen. Marco Rubio said in a speech last week. "But it isn't a government spending program. It's called marriage." 

In The Wall Street Journalformer George W. Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer concurred. "'Marriage inequality' should be at the center of any discussion of why some Americans prosper and others don't," he wrote, before suggesting the government would better off pushing matrimony than bulking up the safety net.

It is true that Americans who get married and stay married are unlikely to end up poor. As Derek Thompson noted last week, just 6.2 percent of wedded couples live below the official poverty line, compared to 31 percent of single mothers. Spouses share the costs of raising children and keeping a home, so it's easier for them stay financially afloat.  

But does that make marriage a great anti-poverty tool, on its own? There are reasons to be skeptical. As Emily Badger has written, it's unclear that single mothers who later marry benefit much from their vows, in part because they tend to get divorced from men who are under-educated and underemployed. 

And then there's this: Even if marriage were a miracle drug for poverty, it's not obvious how the government would promote more weddings. 

How Promoting Marriage Can Backfire

It's often forgotten, but Clinton-era welfare reform was partly designed to encourage more stable, two-parent families, so that the government wouldn't need to support so many single mothers. After it passed in 1996, states began using federal funds to experiment with marriage promotion programs for low-income couples. The efforts were generally small scale. But they got a major boost in 2002, when the Bush administration funded the Building Strong Families project, a giant experiment in eight cities meant to test the idea that the government could help cultivate healthy relationships. More than 5,000 low-income couples, all unwed parents, were randomly given the chance to take classes focused on topics like childcare and communication, or assigned to a control group that did not take part.  

The results? Lackluster. "This final impact analysis finds that BSF had little effect on couples’ relationships," researchers reported in 2012. Three years after the program ended, couples who had the opportunity to take the classes were actually somewhat less likely to stay together. Those fathers were also somewhat less likely to be involved in their children's lives. 

Why on earth would taking a course about how to be a better parent and spouse make couples more likely to split up? The researchers speculated that, ironically, the courses helped some parents realize that they were in unhealthy relationships, and may have discouraged some fathers by dealing a blow to their self-esteem. "The need for fathers to 'step up' and be more responsible was one of the strongest messages that couples took from the program," they wrote. "This expectation may have led some fathers in particularly disadvantaged circumstances to instead distance themselves from their partner and children."

In short: Preaching care and responsibility backfired.

The study did have one big problem: class attendance. Of the parents who were selected to take part, only 10 percent actually completed their program.  Across all eight cities, only 45 percent came to any classes at all, despite incentives like transportation and on-site childcare. The experiment's results mix all the couples assigned to the program, whether or not they came to class. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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