US poor need practical assistance – not marriage classes

Congress diverts millions in aid for poor families to marriage classes, mistaking the correlation between being poor or of color and being an unmarried parent as a causal link. Studies show Americans value marriage regardless of income or race, and relationship classes are ineffective.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/staff
A sign reads 'We accept food stamps,' on Aug. 13 in Harvey, Ill. – a depressed suburb of Chicago hit hard by the sluggish economy. Op-ed contributor Matthew D. Johnson writes: 'Congress [should] reconsider the notion that campaigns to promote marriage and relationship education classes lift families out of poverty....[T]hat money can be used for its original purpose: helping poor families rise out of poverty.'

Once members of Congress finish handing out their valentines this year, let's ask them to give America's low-income families the gifts of respect and assistance. They can do this by ending the annual diversion of more than $100 million from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) fund to programs designed to instill an appreciation of marriage and to teach relationship skills to poor couples and couples of color with the hope that this will lead to more two-parent households.

The programs may sound great. Who can argue with the value of supporting marriages? However, five major studies have demonstrated that these programs simply don't work. Now is the time to end them and return the funds to TANF, where the money can be better spent on helping families in more practical ways.

The rationale for focusing on marriage stems from the correlation between being poor, or one of several ethnicities, and being an unmarried parent. The fallacy here is seeing causation where there is correlation. But the emphasis on marriage as a way of addressing poverty has bipartisan support. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that Americans value marriage regardless of income or race and that programs to teach relationship skills are ineffective.

To assess whether there are racial or income disparities in how much people value marriage, the state of Florida commissioned a survey on the attitudes of welfare recipients as well as low-, middle-, and high-income Floridians regarding marriage. The answers were  clear. Welfare recipients and low-income respondents had the same values as those in the middle class. In fact, it was the wealthiest Floridians who needed an attitude change. These findings are consistent with other research describing a strong appreciation for marriage among poor women. If marriage is already valued, perhaps there are benefits to teaching relationship skills.

One study examined the benefits of interventions designed to improve the relationships of low-income, unmarried couples who were either expecting or had recently had their first child. The study included 5,102 couples in eight cities and followed up with the couples 36 months later. There were no differences between the couples who were taught relationship skills and the couples in the control group in terms of relationship quality, partner support, communication skills, infidelity, likelihood of still being together, or likelihood of being married.

Three other studies that looked closely at the effects of federal spending on relationship education have had similarly disappointing results. This was true when looking at married couples, programs targeting an entire metropolitan area, and when examining demographic trends.

The results are not limited to low-income couples. As detailed in an article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, my colleagues and I taught middle-class couples in Los Angeles relationship skills using two different methods. We then compared these couples with couples in two different control conditions, one in which the couples watched and discussed popular movies involving marriage and another in which the couples refused treatment.

After three years, all four of the groups had about the same levels of satisfaction with their marriages. More important, the groups that were taught relationship skills displayed worse skills after the training, and the couples who demonstrated the best relationship skills were the ones that simply watched popular movies.

I hope Congress will reconsider the notion that campaigns to promote marriage and relationship education classes lift families out of poverty. By returning the millions spent on these failed programs to the federal welfare fund, that money can be used for its original purpose: helping poor families rise out of poverty.

Matthew D. Johnson is a psychology professor at Binghamton University in Binghamton, N.Y., and director of its Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory.

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