Andrew J. Cherlin: Good jobs, not just values, key to marriages

01/10/2013 12:00 AM

01/09/2013 4:54 PM

A large U.S. government-funded experiment to encourage low-income parents to marry, a legacy of the George W. Bush administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, has fallen flat.

Even if you were a skeptic all along of the wisdom of the government promoting marriage, as I was, you can’t see this as good news. For the children of these unmarried couples, it is bad news: It portends years of unstable, complicated home lives. The apparent failure of marriage promotion makes the task of finding other ways to help them even more urgent.

In 2005, Congress authorized $150 million a year for promoting healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood. The most visible project was a social experiment to help young, unmarried couples who were expecting a child, or who had just had one, stay together and marry.

Half of the couples, chosen at random, were offered the program and some additional services, at an average cost of $11,000 a couple. The other half weren’t offered the program and served as a control group. Both sets of couples were followed for three years.

The long-awaited final results were released on Nov. 30: Relationship-skills education had failed to contain the forces that pull young, unmarried couples apart. Couples who were offered the program were no more likely to have remained together or to have married than were those who weren’t offered it. Nor was there a difference in relationship quality between the two groups.

I’m uncomfortable with having government favor one form of family life over others. Yet I also am convinced that children do best in stable family environments and that repeated parental breakups and “repartnering” can be harmful to them.

Only 57 percent of couples in the program were still romantically involved after three years. Many of their children will see a succession of parents’ new partners moving in and out of their homes.

Yet the lesson of the marriage-promotion experiment shouldn’t be to simply give up trying to encourage stable relationships. There are broad hints elsewhere in American society about where we should go next. While marriage has been in decline among the poor and the working class, it has strengthened among the college-educated middle class.

Young adults who have graduated from four-year colleges are more likely to marry than are less-educated young adults. More than 90 percent wait to have children until after they have married. Since 1980, the divorce rate has dropped sharply for the college-educated and is now down to the levels of the mid-1960s.

College-educated Americans have benefited from the trends in the U.S. economy over the past few decades. Meanwhile, less-educated young adults, who struggle to find jobs, are hesitant to marry. Instead, they are increasingly having children in brittle cohabiting relationships.

Conservative analysts argue that the decline of marriage among working-class Americans reflects a crisis of values rather than a changed economy: a lack of commitment and work discipline among young men and a societal drift toward permissiveness in sexuality and childbearing.

Yet college-educated Americans have been exposed to the same cultural forces as the less-educated, and they are still centering their family lives on marriage. So there must be more to the story than changing values.

Without an improvement in the labor market for young adults who don’t have a college education, efforts to instill commitment probably wouldn’t be any more useful than teaching relationship skills turned out to be.

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