Government-Funded Relationship Education Can Work

The biggest challenge is getting couples to attend the classes regularly.

Nearly a billion dollars has been spent on marriage promotion since it was first introduced by Republicans in 2006 as part of welfare reform, and extended by President Obama and the Democrats in 2011. Dozens of programs around the nation, including one that I run in the South Bronx, have sought to teach couples how to break the cycle of family instability and poverty. This is all the more important in a community, like the South Bronx, one of the nation’s poorest, where only one in three families is married.

Marriage has been a source of ideological conflict between Democrats and Republicans ever since Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan addressed the impact of family dissolution in the 1960s. Conservatives stress the correlation between family dissolution and poverty, and try to uphold marriage; while liberals take umbrage at what looks to them like an attempt by the federal government to impose religious values on people’s private lives.

Unfortunately, each side is more focused on proving they (and their “values”) are right than on improving family relationships and combating poverty. So when Marco Rubio recently proclaimed that marriage is an effective anti-poverty program, Nicholas Kristof called marriage promotion programs “dumb” and “wasteful.” In the last month alone, the New York Times published four columns critical of relationship education as a solution to poverty, and there have been many similar articles recently appearing in major newspapers, including The Atlantic. In that piece, Christine Gross-Loh quotes psychologist Matthew Johnson, “We did not know if the existing scientific literature on predicting successful marriages would apply to poor families because it was mostly conducted on middle-class families.” While researchers are in general agreement that relationship education helps to stabilize marriages among middle-class couples, critics like Binghamton University’s Matthew Johnson cite two important research studies, published more than a year ago, which appear to conclude that relationship education is an ineffective poverty-fighting solution.

Building Strong Families examined the impact of relationship education on 5,100 low-income unmarried couples in eight urban settings around the nation. Supporting Healthy Marriage examined the impact of the same kind of relationship education on 6,300 low-income married couples in eight urban settings. These two types of programs—relationship education for unmarried couples, and marriage education for married couples—represent the federal government’s attempt to promote marriage and stabilize families. These programs are based on the premise that communication skills can be taught, which in turn will lead to a reduction in relationship conflict. The government has invested heavily in these programs because the single most important predictor of a father’s engagement with his children is how well he and the mother get along, regardless of marital status.The two studies at issue, Building Strong Families and Supporting Healthy Marriage, are important because they are very large-scale multi-site studies, were conducted by neutral think tanks without an ideological agenda (i.e. Mathematica and MDRC), and specifically examined federally funded anti-poverty programs.

Relationship education programs use curricula developed by leading researchers, including John Gottman and Howard Markman. They are taught in group format, with 10 to 15 couples per workshop, over the course of 10 to 12 weeks. In total, these workshops entail 25 to 30 hours of relationship education, covering topics such learning how to speak and listen (two of the most difficult things any of us ever have to do), deal with and recover from conflict, co-parent effectively, and respect differences. They touch on hot-button issues such as money, sex, work, and non-custodial children. The workshops are discussion-based, often generated by a short video of a couple in conflict, and special emphasis is made to include the men in the conversation. Couples are asked to practice the skills both in the workshop and as homework. Once the core curriculum is completed, couples are then invited for booster workshops over the next nine months. Based on my experience in the Bronx, the workshops are fun, social events—a rare evening away from the children—with lots of joking around, even though the topics may be quite serious.

Those critics who summarize the findings of the two federal studies as saying that relationship education is ineffective misconstrue the results. As is often the case with social science research, interpretation of findings is wholly dependent on understanding the design of the study. In the Building Strong Families study, it turns out that the majority of couples that they included in their analyses did not attend relationship education workshops. Forty-five percent of couples they included in their study did not attend a single workshop, and 83 percent of the couples did not receive a sufficient dosage of relationship education. While the authors of the study said that “offering” relationship education workshops does not have an impact because unmarried couples were not interested in attending workshops, that is not the same as saying, as the critics do, that the relationship education workshops are ineffective.

To say that an intervention “failed the litmus test” (as Nicholas Kristof did) when many people did not get the intervention is like saying that exercise doesn’t make us healthy if we do not go to the gym. All that this research study showed was that many couples were not interested in participating in the program. I suspect the same would be true if the government offered people free gym memberships—many people would not go. But the ones who did go would benefit, which is why the government is making this investment.

Interestingly, the Building Strong Families study site in Oklahoma City, which had the highest attendance at workshops, did find an impact of relationship education among unmarried couples. Attendance was good because the people running workshops at this site placed provided cash incentives to couples who attended workshops. Financial incentives helped to motivate couples to attend the program, and once they participated in the workshops, these couples benefitted from what they learned. At the Oklahoma City site, 80 percent of the couples received a hefty dose of relationship education (24 hours), and the researchers found a statistically significant impact on relationship quality, romantic involvement, co-parenting, and father involvement after one year. In contrast, only 17 percent of the couples at the Baltimore site attended workshops, and not surprisingly the researchers found no impact of relationship education at this site. The study authors were reluctant to limit their data analyses only to couples who actually participated in the program because these couples were not a random sample of participants since they were so highly motivated. What the Building Strong Families study shows, contrary to the critics’ claim, is that motivated couples do benefit from relationship education.

The Supporting Healthy Marriage study provides even clearer evidence that relationship education works. In this study, there was a “modest” impact on relationship quality, relationship satisfaction, reduction in conflict, and positive communication after one year across numerous measures. It is too soon to know whether this will, in turn, lead to greater marital stability or have intergenerational economic impacts. One of the important differences in the Supporting Healthy Marriage study, as compared with the Building Strong Families study, is that the married couples had vastly improved attendance at the workshops. Eighty-three percent of the couples included in the analyses actually attended at least one workshop, and the majority of couples completed the full cycle of workshops. Had the study authors limited their analyses to only those couples that received more than twenty hours of marriage education, the impacts on the relationship measures identified above would have been “moderate” rather than “modest.”

In both studies, when couples attended relationship workshops, their relationships did improve. The difference between the two studies is that attendance was poor in the Building Strong Families study and fairly good in the Supporting Healthy Marriage study. It is difficult to isolate the factors that account for the improved attendance at Supporting Healthy Marriage workshops since the study was more richly funded, allowing sites to provide greater financial incentives for couples to participate. It also involved married couples who presumably were more committed to improving their relationships than the unmarried couples in Building Strong Families. Whether through financial incentives or by reason of being married, couples need to be motivated to attend relationship workshops. Both studies show that when people are sufficiently motivated to attend these workshops, conflict management skills can be taught, which in turn was shown to improve the quality of those relationships.

It is heartening that President Obama was supportive of a family formation initiative begun under his Republican predecessor. The president understands that the government has a stake in keeping fathers engaged in the upbringing of their children. His support recognizes that relationship education does work in reducing conflict when couples—married or unmarried—are sufficiently motivated to attend them. To pursue the gym analogy, what this means is that it’s not sufficient for the government to offer people free gym memberships to encourage attendance; the challenge is getting them in the door.