In public policy circles, marriage is a little like the weather; everyone complains about the state of marriage, but no one does anything about it. As more and more evidence demonstrates the causal link between the failure of marriage and poverty, many are asking yet again, what can government do?
A lot, it turns out. The Institute of Family Studies has published a new report on the effectiveness of government efforts to promote stable marriages and families.
“For more than a decade and in response to the negative effects of increasing family instability, the federal government and a handful of state governments have experimented with policy initiatives to provide voluntary educational programs that help lower-income couples and individuals form healthy relationships and enduring marriages,” the IFS reports. “Funded activities include programs that teach relationship literacy classes to youth; classes teaching couple relationship skills, conflict resolution, co-parenting strategies, and financial management and work-success strategies to unmarried expectant and new-parent couples; marriage enhancement classes for married couples; public advertising campaigns to publicize these classes; and more.”
That’s the right model for trying new approaches — states are free to experiment with programs, and the federal government stays out of the way. This has led to an notable success — the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.
“Then-Governor Frank Keating launched the initiative in 1999, making his state the first to provide substantial public funding for marriage and relationship education,” the IFS says. “Since that time, the OMI has been the most comprehensive and effective public policy effort to help couples achieve healthy relationships and enduring marriages.”
According to an independent study, “OMI efforts were responsible for a 3-point increase in the percentage of Oklahoma children living with two parents, a 2-point decrease in the percentage of children living with one parent, nearly a 3-point decrease in the percentage of children born to a single mother, and a 1-point decrease in the percentage of children in poverty.”
Those don’t sound like big percentages — but they translate into real lives affected positively.
“In a state with more than 200,000 impoverished children, that 1-point decrease means OMI helped at least 2,000 kids avoid or escape poverty and increased family stability for thousands more,” the IFS adds. “Although these are small changes, they suggest that relationship education efforts have potential to help disadvantaged children and reduce the public costs of family instability.”
Why has the Oklahoma model worked? For one thing, IFS notes, the program “received top-level support from governors, state legislators, and leaders at the state’s Department of Human Services that is responsible for the initiative.”
That kind of agreement on strategy is rare, but valuable.
The OMI could serve as a model for programs in other states.
“As the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative shows, with strong government support, careful planning, effective administration, and evidence-based programs, publicly funded marriage and relationship education initiatives can succeed in keeping couples together and providing a more stable family structure for children,” the IFC says.