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.