Launched during the Bush administration at the behest of evangelical Christian activists and with the aid of congressional Republicans, the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative was designed to help low-income couples put a little sizzle in their marriages and urge poor unmarried parents to tie the knot, in the hopes that marriage would enhance their finances and get them off the federal dole. [...]Well, that hurts. The programs were mostly marriage encouragement/counseling efforts aimed at poor people, paid for by taking away welfare money, because, the theory goes, maybe if those folks were (more happily) married they'd have more food to eat and better jobs and—well, I don't really get the logic. Only that poor people need to be encouraged to get married, which is really the only kind of social meddling conservatives like to do. Feeding people, giving them healthcare, or doing anything that might result in less unemployment is out, but we'll happily send them to seminars like "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage" or "Get Married Already, You Goddammned Slut" for a little friendly browbeating.
This month, HHS released the results of several years of research about the performance of the marriage programs, and it indicates that the Bush-era effort to encourage Americans (straight ones, at least) to walk down the aisle has been a serious flop. [...]
Take the Building Healthy Families program, which targeted unmarried but romantically involved couples who were either new parents or expecting a baby. The program, tested in Baltimore and seven other cities, offered participants many weeks of marriage education classes that focused on improving their relationships with the hopes that this would also help their children. Three years later, researchers reported that the program had produced precisely zero impact on the quality of the couples' relationships, rates of domestic violence, or the involvement of fathers with their children. In fact, couples in the eight pilot programs around the country actually broke up more frequently than those in a control group who didn't get the relationship program. The program also prompted a drop in the involvement of fathers and the percentage who provided financial support.
Mencimer points out:
[T]he only social program ever to show documented success in impacting the marriage rates of poor people came in 1994, when the state of Minnesota accidentally reduced the divorce rate among poor black women by allowing them to keep some of their welfare benefits when they went to work rather than cutting them off. During the three-year experiment and for a few years afterward, the divorce rate for black women in the state fell 70 percent. The positive effects on kids also continued for several years.So, as it turns out, just providing a small amount of financial relief to poor families did more to improve their marriages than encouraging them to spend a few hundred bucks they don't have on seminars telling them how great marriage is. Then we stopped that provide slightly more generous welfare benefits nonsense, I guess because zombie Ayn Rand said she wanted all the welfare for herself.
It's not that conservatives don't like social programs; they just like social programs geared towards teaching poor people morality, under the prosperity gospel-like notion that if poor people just had better morals everything else would work out for them. Sure, things like abstinence education and marriage counseling for people who aren't sure how they'll be able to feed their kids next week might have no actual effect, but it's at least proper-sounding. Teaching teens how to have safer sex lives or giving families a little extra money to feed those kids may have profoundly more effect on making things better, but those are liberal things, and therefore off limits.
The program, while retooled a bit, has remained active. And yes, I admit I'm in sort of an unnecessarily foul mood over this stuff. My apologies. No doubt telling people how to have better marriages is a noble goal, but coupled with our new austerity that says those same families need to cut back on that whole "eating" and "having jobs" bit, the morals-before-food principles involved seem ... Victorian? Dickensian? Something like that. If only we could get the same kind of conservative support for programs that get kids food and health insurance.