The Frontlines of Welfare Reform: Why Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Programs Succeed or Fail
A briefing paper prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Jennifer Randles, Assistant Professor of Sociology, California State University, Fresno
“Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”
“Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children”
August 22, 2016
…These were the assumptions that most members of Congress made as they designed the 1996 law that became the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Welfare reform’s strategy to decrease poverty involved increasing the number of children raised in two-parent, married families.
In the 20 years since President Bill Clinton signed that bill into law, Congress has earmarked $150 million of welfare money annually for marriage promotion and responsible fatherhood programs. Federal funding has been continuously renewed through 2016. That’s almost a billion dollars spent on marriage programs alone since welfare reform. Funding continues to mount through current “Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education” and “New Pathways for Fathers and Families” grants. These grants support state, local government, and community-based programs that provide marriage/relationship and parenting education and services believed to increase the economic stability of participants, mostly low-income parents.
Did the marriage and responsible fatherhood programs work? Cumulative studies from two decades say no. Considerable research indicates that the low marriage rates of impoverished individuals are rooted in their economic insecurity and that teaching relationship skills does not increase marriage rates. Government-sponsored evaluations of healthy marriage programs have found that couples who took government-funded relationship skills classes were neither more likely to marry or stay together nor to improve their financial situations. In many cases, the classes did help improve couples’ communication and relationship satisfaction and fathers’ engagement with children. Ironically, however, most of their successes came not because they taught impoverished couples middle-class values but because they helped such couples realize that the challenges they faced were triggered more by their chronic stress than by their own or their partners’ inadequacies. Simply put, even when relationship skills classes improve low-income couples’ relationship experiences, they do not affect marriage or poverty rates.
The way forward. Is this a condemnation of marriage and fatherhood classes? Should we avoid publicly funded interventions that seek to help impoverished families function better? No; there are real benefits of some interventions, but to build on these, policymakers need to understand that couples’ relationship problems are more often a consequence rather than a cause of their poverty. Twenty years of research makes it clear that economic deprivation undermines relationship quality and stability in ways that are far more difficult to root out than the communication problems and other issues that middle-class couples often bring to counseling. Classes designed to teach people to mimic the relationship dynamics of financially stable middle-class, married couples do not help poor couples address the toll that economic stress takes on their family relationships.
Rather than teaching poor couples about the benefits of marriage—which exist only under specific social and economic circumstances not typically experienced by poor parents—relationship programs could take these lessons from couples themselves to focus classes on how chronic stress from economic deprivation and insecurity impact family experiences. Offering couples skills for working together as a unified team, rather than as adversarial individuals, can give partners a boost for confronting these shared challenges.
When couples have problems, this approach suggests, it is often something that is happening to them, rather than something that they are doing to each other, to borrow from the framing psychotherapy researchers Neil S. Jacobson and Andrew Christensen developed for use in empirically-validated couple therapy. The problem happening to low-income couples is inequality—not personal failings or interpersonal incompatibilities. Solving that problem entails shifting from promoting marriage as an (unsubstantiated) anti-poverty strategy to one of directly reducing poverty through job and income-support policies to promote more stable families—which evidence shows does work.
Better job opportunities promote marriage: Unmarried parents are more likely to marry when they are employed and when their income rises. Work and more generous family benefits, such as public subsidies for child care, have reduced childhood poverty in families headed by single mothers significantly more than marriage has since welfare reform.
Fathers overcoming obstacles. My in-depth interviews with low-income Latino and African-American fathers who participated in a federally-funded responsible fatherhood program revealed ways to help disadvantaged men overcome obstacles to the paternal involvement that is core to being a successful father. Fathers in this program, which I call “DADS,” had access to high school completion and college courses that were combined with job training programs that paid. The program helped men demonstrate to co-parents, extended family members, and judges—those who might have doubted them and had power to grant access to their children—that they were working hard to improve their children’s lives. Program incentives, including bus tokens, bicycles, diapers, baby clothes, car seats, and food, allowed fathers to see their children and not show up empty-handed. The relationship and fathering skills classes offered by DADS did not focus on encouraging marriage; instead they emphasized the importance of effective co-parenting and confirmed that directly caring for their children was as valuable as providing financially.
Fathers told me that they appreciated how the program provided the opportunities, resources, and social support they needed to be there for their children, and didn’t just lecture them about financial responsibility. But their experiences also revealed why welfare and family policies need to do more than offer short-term, low-wage employment. As Christopher, a 22-year-old, African-American father of one young son, told me following the completion of the DADS program: “There was nothing else after. It’s not like we finish the program and get an interview or start another program. Other guys went back to the street after the program, just doing what they can to make a dollar…. We went from being on this block every day, to making it to class every day. It became a priority for us. We’re trying to better ourselves, but what are we supposed to do now? We got a certificate, now what?”
Now what? To promote stronger families, policymakers must answer Christopher’s question. We have had 20 years of marriage promotion as poverty prevention, and it has not worked. Two decades of evidence—including my studies on what low-income parents found useful in government marriage classes, how marriage classes have promoted responsible fatherhood, and messages about gender in healthy marriage curricula—point to how we can really help families. Going forward, welfare policies and programs to assist families should aim to mitigate the class, race, and gender inequalities that prevent marriage, undermine co-parenting relationships, and impede paternal involvement. Healthy relationship and responsible fatherhood programs are an important part of our welfare policy. But they will only be successful to the extent that they help families overcome the numerous social and economic challenges that undermine impoverished parents’ best relationship and parenting intentions.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, PLEASE CONTACT
Jennifer Randles, Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, California State University, Fresno, firstname.lastname@example.org; 559-906-9842
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