By Alan J. Hawkins, Ph.D Recently our attention has been riveted on the important debate about who can legally marry. Even with the recent Supreme Court rulings, the debate and legal struggles will continue for some time. As important as the debate over same-sex marriage is, however, I hope it won’t overwhelm an even more substantial public policy concern: How can we strengthen the institution of marriage for the sake of all children?
I believe family instability is the most important social problem of our time. That’s saying something given the wide range of social problems that exist in our society—intergenerational poverty, diminishing educational performance and opportunities, destructive drug and alcohol addiction, to name only a few. Yes, its true that stronger economies, less poverty, more access to good education, and recovery services for addicts will make more fertile ground for healthy romantic relationships and more stable marriages. But it is equally true that family instability contributes significantly to each of these social problems. The short- and long-term effects of the “churning” of couple relationships, as the eminent sociologist Andrew Cherlin calls it, contributes to poorer outcomes and reduced life chances for the children of these unstable unions (and for the adults themselves).
Whether legalizing same-sex marriage strengthens or weakens the institution of marriage, I believe we must stay devoted to the cause of endowing more children with their birthright to be reared in a stable family with two loving parents. Virtually all American youth and young adults still aspire to a healthy, stable marriage. But the work of achieving that life goal has perhaps never been harder, especially for less advantaged Americans.
Scholars and therapists know a lot about how to form and sustain those healthy relationships. We need to get that knowledge out of academia’s ivory towers and clinician’s wood-paneled offices to the public, especially those young people at greater risk for churning, unhealthy romantic relationships.
Over the past decade policy makers have begun to do this. State and federal governments have invested nearly $800 million dollars in supporting educational programs, targeted especially to lower income individuals, to explore whether these programs can help them form more stable families. I realize that in government budget terms, $800 million is barely a rounding error. But to those dedicated souls trying to provide these educational services to needy young people, these public nickels and dimes have been crucial.
The research so far on the effectiveness of these early efforts yields mixed results producing a kind of Rorschach test. Some are pessimistic about these new policy efforts to provide couples with knowledge and skills to strengthen their relationships. Others—myself included—see encouraging signs in the early research on these educational programs. I think over the next few years we will see more rigorous research supporting the effectiveness of these programs.
Yet we know that we can do better. For instance, public funds have supported what must seem to many as a random array of educational services for youth, unmarried parents, and engaged and married couples. But there has been no grand strategy for what needs to be taught and when (and again) to help young people today successfully navigate the long, challenging road of contemporary romantic relationships to get to their desired destination of a healthy, stable marriage.
In my new book, The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships, I review these initiatives and the mixed body of evaluation research on them. And I respond to criticism of these policies. In addition, I critique what we need to do better. I advocate a feasible, strategic public policy agenda that, through my research and experience, I believe will help more couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages that will allow more children to grow up in stable families and improve their prospects for success in life.
We need to start early, in the adolescent and young adult years, with relationship literacy education to help young people understand better their desired destination and the relationship rules of the road to help them achieve their family aspirations. In addition, many young people today begin to run off the road when they get the crucial success sequence wrong (get an education, then get married, then have children). Children whose parents have not followed this life course sequence are, on average, at much greater risk for poverty and poorer outcomes. But most of these young, unmarried parents still yearn to make things work for the sake of their children. So we also need to provide them with what I call relationship development education to help them assess their relationship, strengthen their commitment, and improve the quality of the relationship so that more can achieve their dreams of a loving, stable family.
Then, when couples make that commitment to marriage, we need to provide them effective marriage preparation education to help them build a stronger foundation for marriage with, for instance, better communication and problem-solving skills. (And we will also help a few couples come to realize that they are making a poor decision and prevent a future divorce.) Also, we can’t rest on our laurels even if couples come to the altar better prepared and with less relationship baggage. For this long journey to forever, we should facilitate on-going participation in marriage maintenance education to counteract the universal forces of relationship entropy that naturally pull marriages apart. And for distressed and confused couples at the crossroads of divorce, we can provide divorce orientation education to help them make a more informed choice about the best path forward, including helping some couples repair their relationship, prevent an unnecessary divorce, and preserve stability for their children.
A state-driven agenda that starts early, helps keep young adults on a better trajectory towards a healthy marriage, then supports then for the long journey to forever is a more strategic approach to public policy to decrease family instability than the current scattershot approach of federal funding. Multiple doses of well-designed marriage and relationship education at critical points along the early life course will get more young people to their desired destination of a happy and stable marriage and improve the odds for their children. Our educational efforts will need to improve, but I am confident this is happening. In the same way that we have built safer and more efficient cars over the past generation, I think we will build better educational programs to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages.
The good news is that we can publicly support these educational opportunities with current resources. And they can be delivered through existing educational infrastructures in our communities already skilled at reaching and working with young and needy populations. The major purposes behind our welfare program—Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or TANF—already include strengthening marriages and two-parent families to prevent poverty. I am advocating for states to set aside just 1% of their TANF funds that come from the federal government and invest those funds in these kinds of preventative educational services. If we can’t set aside 1% of TANF funds to try to prevent the relationship churning that is a major contributor to poverty in our society, then how serious are we about helping needy families? I am also calling for states to set aside $10-20 of each marriage license fee to extend funding for this series of educational initiatives. A lean staff of dedicated civil servants and a passionate advisory board of expert volunteers can provide strategic direction for this state-by-state public policy agenda.
Forever is still the dream. And getting and staying on the road to forever is challenging. But successful navigation of that road provides tremendous personal benefits for children and adults. By one estimate, family instability costs U.S. taxpayers more than $100 billion a year. Accordingly, let’s make support for a state-driven strategic agenda of marriage and relationship education services a priority using current resources. The benefits will be both public as well as personal.
The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships, by Alan J. Hawkins, 2013.