Written by Alan J. Hawkins, Ph.D.
This past summer a team of research assistants here at Brigham Young University helped me collect information about government efforts to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships. We collected information on legislation and government-supported educational initiatives in all 50 states (and Washington D.C.), including funding and numbers of people participating in funded marriage and relationship education programs. We tried to be as comprehensive as possible. So what did we learn so far from all this information? In short, we learned that there is a lot of activity in some states but very little in others, but the efforts have dramatically expanded the opportunity of lower income couples to participate in marriage and relationship education. Another clear lesson is that it is the feds rather than the states that are supporting this agenda. Let’s start there.
First, we learned federal efforts to strengthen marriages and prevent unnecessary divorces dwarfs all state efforts. We estimate that more than 90% of the funding for these efforts comes directly from the federal government, and when states are funding these efforts, they usually are using federal dollars (T.A.N.F. block grants to the states). States don’t have much skin in this game yet, so to speak, despite the fact that laws regarding marriage and divorce are set by the states, not the federal government. With just a handful of exceptions, states are relying on the feds for public policy leadership to strengthen marriages. (The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program—what many refer to as the federal “welfare” program—allocates federal dollars to states in “block grants” with various rules about the funds are spent to help needy families. But states have some leeway in the use of the funds.)
Second, there is tremendous variation in activity across states: a few states (RI, WV, NV) have virtually no government-supported activities to strengthen marriage and reduce unnecessary divorce while a handful of states have a significant amount of activity (on a per capita basis), led by Washington D.C., Oklahoma, and Alaska. Regionally, the Northeast states have the lowest amount of activity while the Southwest states (AR, OK, NM, TX) have the highest, perhaps reflecting the demographics of divorce in those regions (lower in the Northeast, higher in the Southwest).
Third, there is a dramatic increase in the availability and usage of marriage and relationship education services for more disadvantaged individuals and couples who struggle more to form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships, and who in the past have had little access to such services. For family life educators, this change is a welcome extension of their profession to an important and needy clientele. It also has thrust the work of marriage and relationship education into the world of public policy. For policy makers, this change adds a new stock to the portfolio of public assistance programs, one that directly addresses a known cause of poverty: family instability. We’re waiting on the research to confirm that these programs are helping to stabilize families and reduce poverty.
Finally, there has been very limited legislative activity intended to strengthen the institution of marriage. Given historically high divorce rates, dramatically increased rates of non-marital childbearing, and fragile family instability, one might expect states to be more active on the legislative front to try to counter these trends. However, for most states, no legislation has directly targeted these trends. The most common legislative action taken has been to adjust the age of legal marriage upward, and a few states have imposed waiting-period requirements for minors when they apply for a marriage license. Eight states (FL, GA, MD, MN, OK, SC, TN, TX) have provided incentives for engaged couples to invest in formal premarital education by discounting marriage license fees.
Four states (IN, ME, OH, PA) passed “time-out” laws since 1990 allowing a spouse to halt divorce proceedings temporarily to challenge the legal assertion of “irreconcilable differences,” and to pursue reconciliation efforts. One state (UT) has mandated that divorcing parents attend a divorce orientation education class that presents the research on the effects of divorce and provides resources for couples willing to try reconciliation. Overall, for whatever reasons, it is clear that legislators have not given much attention to legislative reform intended to strengthen marriages and reduce unnecessary divorces. Many of these proposals are packaged in the Parental Divorce Reform Act advocated by the Coalition for Divorce Reform.
I believe this Act deserves serious consideration by legislatures. I also believe that states need to do more on their own to support educational efforts to help couples—especially more disadvantaged couples—form and sustain healthy marriages rather than just rely on federal initiatives. Ultimately, given the high costs to family breakdown, these efforts will be viewed as proactive and progressive, saving taxpayer money and helping people achieve their family aspirations.