Marriage on the Public Policy Agenda: What Do Policy Makers Need to Know from Research?
from Poverty Research Insights, Winter 2004
From a paper by Kristin S. Seefeldt, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, The University of Michigan and Pamela J. Smock, Department of Sociology & Population Studies Center, The University of Michigan. This paper was informed by research and commentaries presented at the conference, “Marriage and Family Formation Among Low Income Couples: “What do We Know From Research?”
For the last 30 years, encouraging employment has been the primary focus of U.S. welfare reform policies. More recently, however, policy makers have begun debating the merits and feasibility of trying to improve well-being through policies that would directly affect family structure.
Under the Bush Administration, promoting the formation and maintenance of “healthy marriages,” particularly among the low-income population, has emerged as a central goal of social policy, with proposals pending that would allocate up to $1.5 billion to undertake and evaluate marriage promotion efforts.
In their paper, “Marriage on the Public Policy Agenda: What Do Policy Makers Need to Know from Research?” Kristin S. Seefeldt and Pamela J. Smock explore the implications of social science research for marriage promotion efforts.
Changes in family structure: the decline in marriage
Seefeldt and Smock begin with a review of trends in family structure. Over the last several decades, the U.S. has experienced great changes in family behavior, with increases in divorce, non-marital childbearing, and cohabitation. Increases in both the divorce rate and the average age of marriage have resulted in a decline in the prevalence of marriage. A related trend has been the substantial increase in non-marital childbearing. Currently, about one in three children is born outside of marriage.
There are economic differentials in these trends, with the least advantaged being most affected. Racial and ethnic variation exists in these patterns as well, at least in part because of the correlation between economic well-being and race and ethnicity. African Americans’ marriages are more likely to end, either through divorce or separation, than are marriages of Whites.
Taken together, these trends mean that more children -- particularly less advantaged children -- live in single parent families and experience parental relationship transitions. Figure 1 shows the changes in the percent of children living with two parents between 1970 and 2002. In 1970, 58 percent of African American, 89 percent of White, and 78 percent of Latino children were living with two parents. By 2002, those proportions declined to 38.5, 74, and 65 percent among African American, White, and Hispanic children, respectively.
Figure 1: Percent of U.S. Children Living with Two Parents: 1970 and 2002
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Annual Demographic Supplement to the March 2002 Current Population Survey, Current Population Reports, P-20-547, “Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics” and earlier reports.
The authors explore a number of explanations that have been put forth to explain the “decline” or “retreat” from marriage, including women’s increasing economic independence; changing social norms with respect to sex outside of marriage, cohabitation, divorce, and extra-marital childbearing; and advances in contraception.
Seefeldt and Smock also review the empirical research around another potential explanation for the decline in marriage: the availability of welfare and other benefits to support single parenthood. The authors note that although research has found little to no effect of policies on family formation decisions, there may be no reason to expect such a relationship. Although increasing marriage and decreasing non-marital childbearing were specific goals of the 1996 welfare reform legislation (the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, or PRWORA), most policy changes implemented after 1996 focused on encouraging work and not directly on promoting marriage.
Family structure and child well-being
The authors next explore the research literature on the consequences of various family structures and changes in family structure for child well-being. This research finds that, on average, children fare better when living with their married, biological parents, provided the marriage is a low-conflict one.
Children who grow up in other contexts face somewhat increased odds of experiencing negative outcomes such as lower school achievement and behavioral and emotional problems; however, the literature also suggests that economic circumstances play a substantial role in the lower well-being of children from single mother or cohabiting families4.
The “Healthy Marriages Initiative”
Motivated in part by the recognition that economically disadvantaged children are most likely to be growing up without both married, biological parents; by states’ relative lack of sustained attention to PRWORA’s marriage and fertility-related goals; and in part by other issues, the Bush Administration has made promoting family formation, and particularly marriage, a key focus of its domestic policy agenda, introducing the “Healthy Marriages” initiative.
Proposed as part of the reauthorization of the welfare reform program (TANF) and overseen by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the “Healthy Marriages Initiative” seeks to: “help couples who choose marriage for themselves develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages.”
As of this writing, states may continue to use TANF funds as well as funds from several other federal programs to undertake marriage promotion activities. Additional funding is pending Congressional approval. H.R. 4, which passed the House in February 2003 and reflects the Administration’s priorities, would provide up to $1.5 billion over the course of five years to fund marriage promotion, programs, and related research.
States and communities could implement a variety of policies and programs. Seefeldt and Smock divide these activities into three broad categories and detail specific examples of ongoing efforts.
Policy changes that might remove potential marriage disincentives for low-income couples range from changing eligibility rules for welfare, child support, or other benefit programs in order to equalize treatment between single and two-parent families to changing tax policy to eliminate “marriage penalties.” States may also use TANF funds to provide financial incentives to marriage. In West Virginia, for example, families receiving TANF get a $100 bonus each month if the family is headed by a legally-married couple.
Additionally, changes to family law might increase marriage by trying to lower the incidence of divorce. The majority of states have passed legislation or are considering ways to change divorce laws, particularly for couples with children. This includes re-defining circumstances under which a no-fault divorce may occur, requiring a waiting period for divorces, or mandating education on the effects of divorce on families. At the same time, advocates are concerned about potential harm that might occur to women in abusive relationships if their ability to leave a relationship is constrained.
Programs and Interventions
Efforts in this category include participation of couples or individuals in activities designed to strengthen relationships, overcome problems that might interfere with the ability to have a strong relationship, and/or obtain skills that would make them more desirable partners. One such program underway in a number of states is the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP). In PREP curriculum, facilitators lead participants through exercises to improve communication and conflict management skills – areas that research indicates are linked to successful marriage(.
Community initiatives may entail enactment of policy changes and support for marriage promotion interventions; these initiatives are distinguished by organized efforts by government or other groups to support marriage publicly. For example, former Utah governor Leavitt declared a “Marriage Awareness” week and launched a commission to develop strategies to promote marriage.
Challenges to promoting marriage among low-income couples
Seefeldt and Smock also describe the potential challenges policy makers should consider as they attempt to implement, evaluate, and learn from marriage education programs with low-income individuals.
Challenges to Designing Initiatives
It is not clear which group or groups are the most appropriate target for marriage promotion programs. When marriage promotion emerged as a policy option in the late 1990s, women receiving TANF (that is, single mothers with children) were the presumed population to receive these services, perhaps because TANF funds could be used for this purpose. More recently, the focus has shifted to low-income couples, especially those who recently had a child together.
Seefeldt and Smock caution, however, that working with low-income parents to promote marriage may be challenging. For example, in more than two-fifths of couples in the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study, one or both partners have children from another relationship, with African Americans having even higher incidences of multiple partner fertility9. Thus, these couples are already enmeshed in complex family relationships across several households.
A second challenge is determining how many couples (or individuals) are interested in getting married. State studies in Oklahoma and Florida indicate that a general interest in marriage does exist10. Even with high levels of interest in marriage, however, the timing of the intervention as it relates to the couple’s life course may be crucial; there is indirect evidence that interest in marriage to a particular partner may be short-lived.
A third challenge to designing marriage promotion programs is determining the appropriate set of services to be used. Existing marriage education curricula, such as PREP, have been developed for and used with middle-class couples, typically those who are engaged or already married. It is likely that low-income couples face different or more complex issues that need to be addressed within marriage promotion programs, including perceived infidelity and distrust; domestic violence and childhood physical and sexual abuse; and barriers to marriage such as depression, substance abuse, and unemployment.
Other studies find that low-income couples desire both economic and lifestyle security before they get married. This includes couples’ concerns about their emotional maturity, their ability to hold down a stable job and be financially responsible, and their ability to be faithful in a marriage. Seefeldt and Smock conclude that if marriage promotion programs do not address these issues, improvements in relationship quality due to program participation could be overwhelmed by other problems facing couples.
Challenges to Evaluating Initiatives
The Administration for Children and Families within the Department of Health and Human Services has awarded research contracts to conduct random assignment evaluations of healthy marriage initiatives. Even though these initiatives will be subjected to rigorous evaluation tests, there are important challenges that policy makers and researchers need to consider.
First, will sufficient numbers of couples participate in order to do random assignment evaluations? Researchers from Mathematica Policy Research calculated that an ideal sample size for such an evaluation would be 2000 couples (including treatment and control group members) for any particular intervention. Because existing marriage education programs have not systematically targeted the low-income population, and program evaluations have not typically used samples nearly this large, enrollment at this level is a task whose difficulty is not yet known.
Second, even if sufficient numbers of couples participate, will the numbers be large enough so that effects for different subgroups (based on couples’ race and ethnicity, age, and other factors) can be examined? Attaining the desired sample size is critical if we are to learn about potential differences in program experiences or outcomes by various subgroups, particularly given variation in marriage prevalence by racial and ethnic groups.
Challenges to Learning from Initiatives
Finally, there will be challenges to achieving the desired outcomes from marriage promotion programs. Seefeldt and Smock consider two broad outcomes– increased rates of healthy marriages and improved child well-being.
First, policy makers need to be prepared for relatively small increases in the number of couples who marry as a result of program participation. Using data from the Fragile Families Study, Table 1 shows simulations of the probability of marriage among initially unmarried couples. The baseline probability of marriage one year after a non-marital birth is 9 percent. Improvements to any one of four areas of couples’ lives—supportiveness within the relationship, attitudes toward marriage, feelings of gender distrust, or levels of men’ wages —at most is predicted to increase the probability of marriage by just over three percentage points. Improving all four together would increase the probability to 20.5 percent.
Table 1: Percentage point change in the likelihood of marriage
Improve supportiveness in relationship
Increase positive attitudes toward marriage
Decrease gender distrust
Increase male’s wages
Increase all four
Source: Carlson, McLanahan, and England, 2004. The simulation raised (or lowered, depending on which direction encouraged marriage) individual-level values on key variables by one standard deviation from the overall sample mean.
A second challenge is that the incidence of multiple partner fertility may mean creation of more step-parent families, and this may not improve child well-being. Several studies suggest that, on some measures, children in married stepfamilies do not uniformly fare better than those in single parent or cohabiting households and do not enjoy the well-being of children in biological, married households.
Third, even random assignment evaluations may not yield generalizable findings because of the potential for selection bias. What is learned from these evaluations will be based upon couples who will have made active choices to get married (or, alternatively, strengthen an existing marriage) and to participate in an intervention that is designed to do that. It is likely that this subset of people will have characteristics that make them different on at least some measures than other low-income (married or unmarried) couples; if so, we will be limited in our ability to extrapolate from evaluation findings.
What research is needed to move policy forward?
The authors conclude that the challenges enumerated above will make research on marriage promotion efforts different from research on welfare programs. Welfare reform evaluations, for the most part, were able to draw from a large population of recipients who were mandated to participate in activities designed to change their own behavior (e.g., moving from non-work to work). By contrast, marriage promotion evaluations will have to recruit couples to participate, on a voluntary basis, in an effort to change the behavior of both (e.g., from non-marriage to marriage or from a marriage headed toward dissolution to a stable, healthy marriage).
The authors highlight several areas of research that they believe would move family policy forward. Some of this research relates directly to evaluations of marriage promotion programs and some pertains to understanding dynamics among low-income families more broadly.
First, assuming positive impacts are found, we need to understand the characteristics of those who choose to participate in marriage promotion programs, and perhaps more importantly, those who married and experienced improved relationships, so that future interventions can be targeted to couples with similar characteristics. Additionally, information about the local contexts of successful interventions may be helpful, including factors such as community social values and labor markets.
Second, we need to evaluate whether these interventions have improved child well-being through their effects on healthy marriage, because improving child well-being, and doing so through marriage, is the central rationale for this initiative. To do so, studies will need to be comprehensive and must follow children and couples over the long-term, both to track marital stability and the well-being of children in that union.
Third, the authors note the importance of research – possibly qualitative in nature – that uncovers mechanisms or processes through which relationship quality, child well-being, or other outcomes occur. This type of research may be helpful in understanding the correct mix of activities and services, in what combinations, and in what formats provide the best results.
Fourth, more research is needed that focuses on low-income men and their roles within families. Because marriage promotion efforts may create more step-parent families, it is important to understand what happens to relationships between biological fathers and their children when either the mother or the father become involved in a new relationship and take on responsibilities for either new step- or biological children.
Finally, the authors note the need for a greater understanding of the role race and ethnicity play in family formation, including attitudinal, behavioral, and environmental factors. Much of the research attempting to explain declines in marriage among minorities, particularly African Americans, has focused on structural explanations, such as declines in employment opportunities, but this only accounts for some of the difference. The authors note that emerging research must illuminate the complexities in family life – complexities that will have important implications for the success of marriage promotion efforts.
1 Ellwood and Jencks, 2001.
2 Bramlett and Mosher, 2002.
3 See, e.g., Amato, 2000; Parke 2003; Seltzer 1994.
4 McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Seltzer 1994.
5 Gardiner et al, 2002.
6 Burgos DiTullio, 1997.
7 Stanley et. al, 1995; PREP, undated.
8 Utah’s Governor’s Office, 1999.
9 Carlson and Furstenburg, 2003; Mincy, 2002; see also Manning, Stewart, and Smock  on the complexity of nonresident fathers’ parenting roles.
10 Oklahoma State University, Bureau for Social Research, 2002. Karney, Wilson Garvan, and Thomas, 2003.
11 Fragile Families Study, 2003a.
12 Dion et al., 2002.
13 Carlson, McLanahan, and England, forthcoming 2004.
14 e.g. Acs and Nelson, 2003; Hofferth, 2003; McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994.
15 Harknett and McLanahan, 2002.