“Building Strong Families” Found Completely Ineffective

The evidence is unmistakable: there’s just no amount of government coaxing that will make unmarried couples want to, as Beyoncé would say, “put a ring on it.” 

A new report from Mathematica Policy Research, Inc, shows that the relationship skills education programs implemented by the Administration for Children and Families have, with a few exceptions, no effect on participants.  These programs provide “education” and support services to unmarried, low-income, heterosexual couples with newborn babies, and are among the marriage-promotion projects which had been enthusiastically touted by the Bush administration as a magic pill for poverty and unstable families.

Mathematica investigated Building Strong Families (BSF), a project created in the early years of the Bush administration, and found that although its goal was to improve the stability and quality of couples’ relationships and, ultimately, lead to marriage, the programs were almost completely ineffective, striking yet another serious blow to the marriage-promotion industry.

The earliest marriage-promotion initiatives grew out of Clinton-era welfare reforms, but gained their real momentum in the early 2000s with the rise of the Christian Right.  Although the programs were ostensibly designed to combat poverty, they were also inspired by anxiety about the steadily rising numbers of children born to unwed couples.  Even as, in practice, the ideal of the nuclear family as the only acceptable way of life seemed more and more outdated and out of touch, social conservatives became increasingly eager to market the two-parent family as the most effective relief for poverty. Advocates for programs like BSF claimed that by teaching communication and conflict resolution skills, unmarried couples would be better prepared (and more willing) to weather the storms of their child’s infancy together and, from there, enter into holy matrimony. 

All of this was predicated on the notion that children raised by two married parents would grow into more financially and emotionally stable adults, preventing the need for more complicated and costly social programs for these children later in life, while still upholding the inviolability of heterosexual marriage.  Marriage promotion enthusiasts cited studies that equated high infant mortality, poor school performance and emotional instability with single-parent families, while ignoring that these factors have been more convincingly linked to poverty.  The Obama administration has avoided backing these programs with quite the same gusto, but programs like BSF still continue to receive federal funding.

Needless to say, the failure of initiatives like these is no surprise to anyone who recognizes them for what they are: a thinly veiled promotion of Far Right ideology.  Projects like BSF are futile because they promote specific values, rather than overall well-being.  Their object is, in fact, not effectiveness.  Instead, they seek the successful advancement of a particular moral agenda: heterosexual marriage.

The latest findings eerily echo another Mathematica report, released in 2007, which evaluated abstinence-only-until-marriage programs funded by federal dollars.  These programs were found to be as ineffective in their goal of keeping students abstinent as BSF and other marriage promotion projects were in encouraging marriage; students in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs were no more likely than their peers to delay sexual activity or embrace sexual abstinence.  This is because federally funded programs were not designed to help teens make responsible sexual decisions; instead, they were designed to promote an ideal that sex within heterosexual marriage was the only acceptable lifestyle choice.   Unsurprisingly, young people ultimately rejected these notions. 

Ironically, a truly sincere effort to promote healthy families and informed sexual decision-making could begin in the same place, with comprehensive education on sex and relationships aimed at youth.  Programs like BSF don’t work, in part because they target couples too late and provide relationship advice to low-income adults who need an entirely different set of resources.  Comprehensive sexuality education,  on the other hand, promotes communication and conflict resolution skills from an early age so that young people can, later in life, create healthy relationships and choose when and how they want to undertake new challenges like having children or getting married.

Imparting these lessons to young people through schools makes sense, also, from a practical standpoint.  One of the obvious flaws of the BSF project was that low-income couples with a newborn child often are unable to commit, either in terms of time or energy, to such an intensive relationship education program.  Incorporating such skills into public education at an earlier age, however, is a much more effective way of deploying federal resources toward encouraging stable and happy relationships later in life.  Instead of devaluing single mothers, demonizing teens (particularly women) for having sex, failing to promote independence, and completely ignoring or marginalizing LGBT individuals, comprehensive sexuality education can provide people with the education and tools that they need to start families when they have the financial and emotional means.  Of course, these programs would involve education about healthy marriages and sexual abstinence, but these choices would not be cast as intrinsically virtuous; rather, they would be presented as what they are, one option among many.

The two Mathematica reports, read together, illustrate the extent to which we will fail to improve the lives of American families if the federal government continues to fund these dogmatic and ultimately unsuccessful projects.  We can only hope that the ineffectiveness of marriage promotion programs will be recognized swiftly, and that resources can be redirected to projects that will actually advance health and well-being, instead of a moral agenda.

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  • squirrely-girl

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha HA! OMG HA!


    Sorry, it’s not everyday I get to laugh at failed government programs… well other than abstinence only ed.

  • bornin1984

    And social security. And Medicaid. And Medicare. And whatever they are trying to pass of as health reform.

  • squirrely-girl

    … but I tend to save my laughing for government programs that fail completely. While I would agree that some of those other programs are woefully disorganized, inefficient, and fiscally irresponsible, they DO benefit people. On the other hand, forcing religion and morals on people rarely does.

  • saltyc

    I agree with SquirrelyGirl,

    I always knew marraige promotion would fail.

    The biggest flaw in their assumptions, is that there’s something wrong with the thinking of couples who break up when they’re in poverty and extreme stress. It’s patronizing to tell people to think of each other more and not be so selfish. They’re already doing that, but the resources just don’t go around, which doesn’t make for a peaceful household.The truth is, you take a number of happily married couples, throw them in a stress blender, and many of them will break up. Oftentimes even breaking can be a rational strategy, but how can you even know that when your whole attitude is I’m a wealthy privileged establishment figure here to teach you poor suckers how to act right.

  • squirrely-girl

    … is the single biggest contributor to marital discord. 


    And just because two people had sex and reproduced doesn’t mean they’re meant to be/stay in a relationship together. :(

  • catseye71352

    So would you like to turn those “inefficient” programs over to Wall Street?

  • crowepps

    Revealed: Industrial Revolution was powered by child slaves

    Early factory owners – located in the countryside in order to exploit power from fast-flowing rivers – found that local labour was scarce … They therefore opted instead to create a new work force composed of children, tailor-made for their factories.


    “Factory owners were looking for cheap, malleable and fast-learning work forces – and found them ready-made among the children of the urban workhouses,” …


    Her work has revealed that during most of the 18th century only around 35 per cent of ten year old working-class boys were in the labour force while the figure for 1791-1820 (when large scale industrialisation started) was 55 per cent, rising to 60 per cent for the period of 1821-1850.


    The number of eight-year-old working-class boys at work also rose substantially in that period – with around a third of them being part of the work force between 1791 and 1850 compared to less than 20 per cent before 1791.

    By the early 19th century, up to 18 per cent of families were being abandoned by fathers. Many other men died in accidents, epidemics and wars – and the new research suggests that around a third of working-class children grew up in single-parent families.



  • squirrely-girl

    Given the track record of Wall Street these past few years, not really. I’m not generally one for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. How is it that other nations have figured out this whole government run health care thing and we remain woefully ignorant?

  • equalist

    I think it has to do with the resistance of the undereducated, fighting against whatever fox news tells them is bad.

  • crowepps

    For some reason people are convinced that a government clerk being funded by 5% of the health care dollar to decide whether to pay their bill for medical care according to ‘standards of generally accepted medical care’ and ‘wise use of taxpayer dollars’ is outrageous and that they MUCH prefer the ‘free market’ solution that diverts 30% of the health care dollar to an insurance company clerk who decides whether or not to pay for their medical care on the basis of ‘are we going to make a fat profit again this year’ and ‘is this customer likely to sue us for shafting them’.

  • invalid-0

    Often times, moral agenda is disguised as a well meaning, educational government program and it is not uncommon that these programs are spearheaded by someone whose narrow minded approach to ‘helping society’ is to preach them a 12-step moral lesson is in for a big and no longer surprising disappointment at the end. It has been proven time and again, that when you want to teach the less privileged about ‘family’ you must approach it from non moralist grounds and base your curriculum on sheer pragmatism.

    PS. Another great article that I want to share for the same topic

    <a href=”http://sn.im/z1ej1″>Families</a>

  • camarriage

    Joseph and readers,


    It is commendable that you care about America’s children and families. In order to further your knowledge and education, please read our response to the Building Strong Families report. 

    http://camarriage.com/content/resources/9580a052-0117-439e-b263-ea85bbc115c8.pdf &nbsp; You may be interested in hearing a different perspective on the report’s results.

    The goal of marriage education is not to coax people into getting married nor marginalize any individuals. At California Healthy Marriages Coalition, we offer programs to anyone and everyone who wants to attend. We have currently served over 46,000 Californians with skill-based marriage and relationship education. Our class participants are married, unmarried, engaged, single, divorced, stepfamilies, and widowed. No one is discriminated against because of race or sexual orientation. We currently have programs offered in African Americans, Hispanic and Latino, Middle Eastern, Korean, Hmong, and Caucasian populations.


    Saying that all marriage education programs are ineffective is simply incorrect. We will release our first formal report on the effectiveness of our programs within the next year, but we already know from our in-house analyses – as well as many deeply-felt positive testimonials from participants around the state – that marriage education programs make a great deal of impact on people’s lives. 

    We are open to communication with Joseph or anyone else who has questions. Thank you! 


    ~California Healthy Marriages Coalition 



  • crowepps

    While I would agree with you that marriage education programs may have a great deal of impact on people’s lives, the report you reference was talking about something else entirely, whether or not the public purpose of improving the living circumstances of CHILDREN was reached. My guess would be that children living in households where adults had an effective communication style, were committed to each other, understood interpersonal relationships and had a grasp of normal childhood development would indeed be living in improved circumstances, but that would be true irrespective of whether or not those adults were married to each other.


    I’m sure it would be possible to come up with excellent success rates by excluding all the drop-outs and failures from follow-up studies, even though the REASON why people drop-out and the REASON why people fail to put the program principles into effect may indicate something important about the curriculum or the way it’s presented.


    In my opinion, this information could and should be provided to everyone as a component of a required ‘life skills’ course in the schools along with accurate information on reproduction at a much lower cost and reach a much broader segment of the population.


    A more fundamental question is why the general taxpayer, in addition to paying school teachers, should be expected to contract out this training to private faith-based organizations when alternatively the people involved could pay for their own courses or the faith-based organizations running the programs could fund them through donations. It’s really nice that in your opinion your program makes people ‘happier’ but I really don’t see where it’s the taxpayers responsibility to finance you while you provide their happiness training.