One of the greatest social problems facing our country is the breakdown of the family, and, more specifically, the breakdown of marriage. Today, over 40 percent of children are born outside of marriage. In the 1960s, that percentage was less than 10 percent. The rate of unwed births is far higher among some groups: nearly three-quarters of African-American babies and over half of all Hispanic babies are born to single mothers annually.

The retreat from marriage and the increased rate of unwed births are tragic in terms of their effects on children and their costs to society as a whole. Children in single-parent homes are more than five times as likely to be poor compared to their peers born to married parents. They are also less likely to thrive: they are at significantly greater risk for dropping out of high school, going to jail, abusing drugs and alcohol, and becoming single parents themselves.

Sadly, however, there is far too little discussion about the growing problem of marital breakdown. This is tragic, not only because its social costs are great, but also because the aspiration of a stable marriage and family remains elusive for so many men and women. Some states, communities, churches, and charities are making efforts to strengthen marriage, particularly marriages among low-income couples. Yet greater effort is required.

Marriage Matters

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Marriage provides a host of benefits not only to children, but to men and women as well, including better physical and mental health and increased financial stability. Strong marriages are the foundation of a strong society. A new Harvard study by Raj Chetty and colleagues shows that children—even those from single-parent homes—have greater upward mobility if they are reared in a community with a larger proportion of married-parent families. Also, because marriage is associated with greater financial stability, married-parent families are less likely to depend on government welfare support. Roughly three-quarters—about $330 billion—of welfare spending on families with children goes to single-parent households. The fact that marriage is falling apart, and that it is particularly declining in lower-income communities, have serious consequences for individuals and society as a whole.

While marriage seems to be relatively stable among the highly educated (those with a college education or more), it is floundering in lower-income communities and, increasingly, in “middle America.” For a growing proportion of America, the dream of achieving a successful marriage remains only that: a dream. Among women with less than a high school diploma, 65 percent of births are to single mothers; among those with no more than a high school diploma, the rate is about 55 percent (42 percent among women with some college). In contrast, among college graduates, the rate is not much higher than the overall rate back in the 1960s: about 8 percent. According to my colleague Robert Rector at the Heritage Foundation, “The U.S. is steadily separating into a two-caste system with marriage and education as the dividing line.”

Educational Strategies for Adolescents and for Cohabiting, Engaged, or Married Couples

Helping individuals, particularly those in lower-income communities, build healthy marriages is crucial. In a new book, Brigham Young University professor Dr. Alan Hawkins lays out a marriage-strengthening strategy that centers on helping individuals and couples develop the knowledge and skills necessary to build and maintain healthy marriages. Hawkins has worked in the field of marriage education for a decade and a half. His book, The Forever Initiative: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Marriages and Relationships, describes the range of relationship and marriage education programs, discusses current educational efforts around the nation, and provides an overview of research about their effectiveness.

The challenges to building healthy marriages are many, and some communities are more at risk than others. Hawkins makes the case that preparing for and maintaining a healthy marriage is a lifelong endeavor.

Adolescents can benefit from “Relationship Literacy Education,” which focuses on “the process of forming healthy romantic relationships, avoiding the pitfalls of unhealthy relationships, and understanding better the institution of marriage,” notes Hawkins. Although marriage is at least a few years away for teens, it is important that a strong foundation is set during the teenage years, particularly for youth without many models of healthy marriages.

Cohabitation, rather than marriage, is more common among lower-income individuals. Cohabitation is associated with lower marital quality and stability and puts individuals and their children at risk for relationship dissolution and the many negative outcomes associated with it.

Hawkins believes that Relationship Development Education for cohabiting parents should be made available to these couples. Many of them are together because they have had a child, not because they have made a formal commitment, Hawkins explains; this puts them at a particularly high risk of breaking up. Fewer than half of cohabiting couples are still together after five years.

Some of the other particular challenges that cohabiting couples face include a greater likelihood of being financially disadvantaged and emotionally stressed. Cohabiting couples are also more likely to be dealing with the stresses of parenting not only children from their current relationship, but perhaps also children from one or more past relationships, as well as juggling relationships with previous partners with whom they have had children—and all the while, these couples are also trying to determine the strength of their current relationship. Relationship education for these couples must take such factors into account.

Hawkins’s comprehensive strategy for marriage-strengthening efforts also includes help for engaged and married couples by means of Marriage Preparation Education, Marriage Maintenance Education, and Divorce Orientation Education.

Marriage Preparation Education provides an “on-ramp” toward a stable and healthy marriage for engaged couples by helping them assess readiness for marriage, evaluate the quality of their relationship, improve their relationship skills, and understand the institution of marriage. Marriage Maintenance Education focuses on keeping marriages healthy and communication strong—whether the couple is newly wed or has been together for decades. Divorce Orientation Education is geared toward helping couples avoid preventable divorce.

Initiatives by Schools, Communities, and State Governments

These various types of relationship education can be offered through different venues, as Hawkins explains: high schools and youth centers, churches, community colleges, and the military, as well as the internet.

Several Alabama high schools taught a “relationship literacy education” class, Hawkins reports. He cites an evaluation of 1,400 of these high-school students from thirty-nine Alabama high schools that showed that students who participated in the program had more realistic attitudes about marriage and better conflict-management skills even a year after participating compared to their peers who did not participate. Over half of these students came from low-income households.

At the community level, a few cities have begun to operate “community healthy marriage initiatives.” A prime example is First Things First in Chattanooga, Tennessee. First Things First provides marriage education courses, operates public advertising campaigns to promote the importance of marriage and advertise the resources they offer, and holds community events for families and couples. They report that their efforts have reduced divorce rates in their community by 27 percent (although a more rigorous evaluation is needed to control for other factors).

At the state level, Utah and Oklahoma have instituted state healthy-marriage initiatives. These initiatives aim to provide marriage and relationship education to couples. Both states began their initiatives prior to the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative, which started as part of the federal 1996 welfare reform. Oklahoma and Utah are two of the very few states that have been active in promoting healthy marriage through state-led efforts.

A large part of Oklahoma’s healthy marriage initiative is its Family Expectations program, which is geared toward lower-income couples, both married and unmarried, who are expecting a child. This program was part of a federal study called Building Stronger Families, which examined 5,000 lower-income single parents who participated in programs run by eight different organizations across the United States that received grants from the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative. While the overall finding of the study for all locations was not positive, couples who participated in the Oklahoma City program were 20 percent more likely to be together three years after completing the program compared to a control group. One of the reasons Oklahoma City may have had better results than the other location was because it had the highest level of participation. On average, among the programs in other locations, only about 10 percent of couples received a significant “dosage” of the program.

Improving Marriage and Relationship Education Programs

These examples and initial evaluations can provide guidance for how to improve and strengthen marriage and relationship education. Relationship education programs are, for the most part, very new; their small size constitutes a drop in the bucket in a society that is often indifferent, if not hostile, to marriage. Still, Hawkins notes that he is “cautiously optimistic” about the outcomes of marriage and relationship education programs thus far, and encourages greater diligence to figure out what is most effective in building and maintaining healthy marriages.

Of course, there are critics of marriage education, Hawkins explains. Some assert that marriage education efforts will be ineffective because the people whom the programs target face too many issues or because the cultural tide against marriage is too strong. Others argue that marriage education misses the mark, and that anti-poverty efforts should instead focus on fixing high-unemployment rates, improving educational opportunity, and helping people deal with drug abuse and other issues. Hawkins responds to such criticism by arguing that if healthy marriage is the basis of a strong society, it is worth every effort to strengthen it. He also explains that marriage education does not have to be an either/or proposition. Marriage education can supplement efforts to address other problems such as high unemployment and poor educational opportunities.

While Hawkins focuses primarily on educational efforts to strengthen marriage, he recognizes that, ultimately, wide-ranging cultural change is needed. “I admit that to get more than modest change we need to do more than provide a set of programs. We are cultural creatures; we tend to go along with the cultural current. So we need to shift the culture.” Leaders at every level of society must work to strengthen marriage and collaborate to create a vibrant marriage culture.

The United States is experiencing a significant decline in marriage, harming the realization of the American dream for far too many of its citizens. Still, most Americans aspire to marry. Helping people to achieve this goal means not only helping men and women reach their dreams but also bolstering the foundation of the nation for future generations.