Reducing Domestic Violence: How the Healthy Marriage Initiative Can Help
by Melissa G. Pardue and Robert Rector
Backgrounder #1744

March 30, 2004

In the United States today, one child in three is born outside of marriage.
The decline of marriage is a prominent cause of child poverty, welfare
dependence, and many other social problems.

In response to these concerns, President George W. Bush has proposed the
Healthy Marriage Initiative to promote and encourage strong marriages. The
proposed program would provide $300 million annually in federal and state
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) money to state-level programs
that promote marriage and marriage skills, particularly among low-income
and "fragile" families. All participation in the President's marriage
program would be voluntary. The program would utilize existing
marriage-skills education that has proven effective in decreasing
conflict--and increasing happiness and stability--among target couples.

However, critics of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative often
assert that such a program would encourage or force vulnerable women into
violent and dangerous relationships. Specifically, critics argue that a
substantial portion of many low-income women who would participate in the
marriage program are in abusive relationships and that the program would
push women into marriages with abusive men, thereby increasing the rate of
domestic abuse.

Erroneous Criticisms

These arguments by opponents of the Healthy Marriage Initiative are
erroneous for a number of reasons:

1. Marriage-education programs that would be funded under the
President's Healthy Marriage Initiative have been shown to reduce--not
increase--domestic abuse.
2. The primary target groups for the healthy marriage programs would
be unmarried couples at the time of a child's birth, or young, at-risk
couples prior to a child's conception. The rate of domestic abuse in these
groups is extremely low--around 2 percent.
3. The prevalence of domestic abuse among low-income women is often
exaggerated by the use of statistics regarding whether or not a woman has
ever been abused in her lifetime rather than whether or not abuse is
occurring within a current romantic relationship.
4. Critics incorrectly assume that the target population for the
Healthy Marriage Initiative would be older, single mothers in the TANF
program. Typically, older welfare mothers have already severed ties with
the fathers of their children. Such relationships have often been dead for
several years: These mothers, therefore, are not good candidates for a
marriage program. Rather, healthy marriage programs would seek to improve
the stability and quality of relationships for low-income women at a
younger age. Couples at this stage of life--generally termed "fragile
families"--have relatively good prospects for entering into healthy, stable
marriages.
The rate of domestic violence among these couples is low--around 2
percent.1 Although the rate of current abuse suffered by older mothers on
welfare is far higher--around 20 to 30 percent--as noted, these women
would not be a target group of the Healthy Marriage Initiative.
Thus, the assertion that welfare mothers experience high rates of domestic
abuse is irrelevant to an assessment of the prospects of the Healthy
Marriage Initiative. By intervening at a younger age, the Healthy Marriage
Initiative would seek to improve the well-being of children and to reduce
future child poverty and welfare dependence.
5. Many low-income mothers are trapped in patterns of serial
cohabitation, moving through a sequence of fractured, failed relationships
with men. Domestic violence is most likely to occur within this pattern of
serial cohabitation. The Healthy Marriage Initiative could help prevent
couples from falling prey to this destructive pattern by providing them
with the knowledge and skills needed to build healthy, stable
relationships. The proper time for such training is when couples are at a
relatively young age--either prior to a child's conception or at the time
of a child's birth--before self-defeating patterns of distrust and acrimony
have developed.
By helping couples to avoid the pitfalls of serial failed relationships,
the Healthy Marriage Initiative will substantially reduce, rather than
increase, domestic violence. Indeed, unless couples are equipped with the
skills they need to develop healthy relationships, it is difficult to
imagine how the current rates of domestic violence in low-income
communities can be reduced.
6. Prototype healthy marriage programs, such as the Oklahoma Marriage
Initiative, have not led to increases in domestic violence. In Oklahoma,
more than 14,000 individuals have received training, but not a single
instance of domestic abuse linked to the program has been reported. The
marriage initiative works closely with local domestic violence prevention
groups, and these groups have made no complaints regarding the operation of
the program.2

Domestic Violence and Welfare Mothers

Opponents of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative claim that the
policy will target women who are likely to be in abusive relationships.
Critics also charge that the marriage program will push these vulnerable
women further into dangerous and violent relationships and possibly even
endanger their lives. For example, the NOW Legal Defense Fund asserts:

Because of the prevalence of intimate violence among women receiving public
assistance, promotion of marriage will jeopardize the safety and lives of
women and children. As many as 60 percent of welfare recipients are
survivors of domestic violence. Marriage-promotion programs, which target a
population that is made up to such a large degree of women who are domestic
violence survivors, can have disastrous results.... [I]f [the healthy
marriage initiative] goes forward, survivors may well be coerced into
abusive marriages that they may not survive.3

These ominous claims are based on a misunderstanding of marriage-promotion
programs and the characteristics of the couples who would participate in
them. First, the figure that 60 percent of welfare mothers are "survivors
of domestic violence" indicates that a high percentage of welfare mothers
have experienced some level of domestic violence at some point during their
lives; it does not mean that 60 percent of welfare mothers are experiencing
violence in a current relationship. The figures for current (or recent)
domestic abuse among welfare mothers are considerably lower: Some 20
percent to 30 percent have experienced violence in a current relationship
or within the past year. 4 While these figures are still regrettably high,
they indicate that most welfare mothers, at present, are not in abusive
relationships.

Furthermore, participation in marriage programs will be voluntary; no one
will be "coerced" to participate. In addition, marriage-promotion programs
do not assume that all relationships should be saved. In fact, rather than
pushing women further into abusive relationships, the programs would urge
women to leave situations where significant abuse is occurring. Marriage
education programs teach couples how to resolve disagreements peacefully: A
primary effect of these programs is to de-escalate conflict and
significantly reduce strife and acrimony within relationships.
Consequently, the programs have been shown to reduce domestic violence, not
increase it.5

The NOW Legal Defense Fund also incorrectly assumes that the main target
group of the Healthy Marriage Initiative would be older, single mothers on
welfare (i.e., mothers enrolled in the TANF program). However, because most
older welfare mothers have relationships with the fathers of their children
that collapsed years ago, they would not be a suitable target group for
marriage-promotion programs. Instead, the Healthy Marriage Initiative will
provide skills to unmarried couples before their relationships turn bitter
and acrimonious. By providing skills training at an early stage in a
relationship, marriage-promotion programs will help couples to build happy
and stable families in the future.

The Healthy Marriage Initiative will focus primarily on unmarried, young
adult couples around the time of their child's birth or--even better--prior
to their child's conception. These couples have been referred to as
"fragile families." The domestic abuse rate among "fragile family"
couples--the targets for healthy marriages programs--is only around 2
percent. This represents one-tenth of the domestic abuse level found among
current welfare mothers. By helping these couples build enduring and
harmonious relationships, the Healthy Marriage Initiative can substantially
reduce future domestic abuse.

What the Fragile Families Survey Shows

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study provides the best
information about the low-income couples who would be the focal point of
the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative. The study, which has been
conducted by a team of researchers at Princeton University's Center for
Research on Child Wellbeing and Columbia University's Social Indicators
Survey Center, is a joint academic survey of new parents. The study is
based on a nationally representative sample of parents--both married and
unmarried--at the time of a child's birth.6

Overall, the Fragile Families Survey reveals much surprising information.

* Most out-of-wedlock births occur among young adult women--not
teenagers in high school. The median age for women having children out of
wedlock is 22.
* Roughly half of unmarried mothers were cohabiting with the child's
father at the time of the baby's birth. Nearly 75 percent were romantically
involved with the father at the time of the child's birth.
* Very few unmarried fathers had drug or alcohol problems. About 98
percent of fathers had been employed during the prior year. Overall, the
median annual income of the unmarried fathers was $17,500.
* Most of the unmarried couples had a strong interest in marriage:
Approximately 73 percent of mothers and 88 percent of fathers believed that
they had at least a 50-50 chance of marrying each other in the future.
* Among all the unmarried couples in the Fragile Families Survey, the
domestic violence rate was 4 percent; however, among the roughly 75 percent
of unmarried couples who were cohabiting or romantically involved, the
domestic violence rate was lower--1.8 percent. These cohabiting and
romantically involved couples would be the main target group of
healthy-marriage programs.

Marriage as a Protective Institution

Contrary to the views of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, marriage tends to
protect women from domestic abuse rather than increasing it. In general,
domestic violence is more common in cohabiting relationships than in
marriages. Analysis from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS),
administered by the Department of Justice, also shows that mothers who are,
or have been, married are far less likely to suffer from violent crime than
are mothers who have never married. Specifically, data from the NCVS survey
show that:7

* Marriage dramatically reduces the risk that mothers will suffer
from domestic abuse. The incidence of abuse by a spouse, boyfriend, or
domestic partner is twice as high among mothers who have never been married
as it is among mothers who have been married (including those who have
separated or divorced).8
* Marriage dramatically reduces the prospect that mothers will suffer
from violent crime in general at the hands of intimate acquaintances or of
strangers. Mothers who have never married--including those who are single
and living either alone or with a boyfriend, and those who are cohabiting
with their child's father--are twice as likely to be victims of violent
crime as are mothers who have been married.9

The pattern of cohabiting relationships among low-income women is a major
factor in the increased risk for partner violence. More than half of all
children in poverty come from homes with a never-married mother, and nearly
two-thirds of welfare dependence occurs among households with mothers who
have never married.10 By intervening at an early point in the lives of
women, marriage programs would seek to break this cycle of cohabitation and
out-of-wedlock childbearing. They would provide the skills and training
needed to help women form loving, stable, and committed relationships
before becoming pregnant or moving in with a violent or abusive partner.

How the Healthy Marriage Initiative Would Make Women Safer

The 1996 welfare reform law established national goals of reducing
out-of-wedlock childbearing and increasing two-parent families. President
Bush's Healthy Marriage Initiative would seek to meet these original goals
of welfare reform by proposing--as part of welfare reauthorization--a new
model program to promote strong marriages. His proposed program would seek
to increase healthy marriage by providing at-risk individuals and couples
with:

* Accurate information on the value of marriage in the lives of men,
women, and children;
* Marriage-skills education that will enable couples to reduce
conflict and increase the happiness and longevity of their relationships;
and
* Experimental reductions in the financial penalties against marriage
that are currently contained in all federal welfare programs.

All participation in the President's marriage program would be voluntary.
The initiative would utilize existing marriage-skills education programs
that have proven effective in decreasing conflict and increasing happiness
and stability among couples. These programs have also been shown to be
effective in reducing domestic violence.11 The pro-marriage initiative
would not merely seek to increase marriage rates among target couples, but
would also provide ongoing support to help at-risk couples maintain healthy
marriages over time.

A well-designed marriage initiative would target participants early in
their lives, when attitudes and relationships are initially being formed.
Typically, such marriage-promotion programs would provide information to
at-risk high school students about the long-term value of marriage. They
would teach relationship skills to unmarried adult couples before the women
become pregnant--with a focus on preventing pregnancy before couples have
made a commitment to healthy marriages. The programs would also provide
marriage-skills training and relationship education to unmarried couples at
the "magic moment" of a child's birth and would offer marriage-skills
training to low-income married couples to improve the quality of their
marriage and to reduce the likelihood of divorce.

The primary focus of these marriage programs would be preventative, not
reparative. They would seek to prevent the isolation and poverty of welfare
mothers by intervening at an early point, before a pattern of broken
relationships and welfare dependence has emerged. By fostering better life
decisions and stronger relationship skills, marriage programs can increase
child well-being and adult happiness and reduce child poverty and welfare
dependence.

The Record of Success of Marriage Programs

Critics of the President's initiative often claim that there is no evidence
showing that the marriage education and enrichment programs envisioned by
the Healthy Marriage Initiative would work. This charge is simply false.
There is overwhelming evidence that programs that provide marriage-skills
training help couples to increase happiness, improve their relationships,
and avoid negative behaviors that can lead to marital breakup.

No fewer than 29 peer-reviewed social-science journal articles provide
ample evidence (from actual experience) that marriage education, training,
and counseling programs--some of which have been around for more than 30
years--have significantly strengthened the marriages of the couples that
have taken advantage of such programs.12 These studies--integrating
findings from well over 100 separate evaluations--show that a wide variety
of marriage-strengthening programs can reduce strife, improve
communication, increase parenting skills, increase stability, and enhance
marital happiness.

* One analysis--referred to by scientists as a
"meta-analysis"--integrated 85 studies involving nearly 4,000 couples
enrolled in more than 20 different marriage-enrichment programs. It found
that the average couple, after participating in a program, was better off
than more than two-thirds of couples that did not participate.13
* A 1999 meta-analysis of 16 studies of one of the oldest
marriage-enhancement programs, Couple Communication, observed meaningful
program effects with regard to numerous measures: Couples who took the
training experienced moderate-to-large gains in communication skills,
marital satisfaction, and other relationship qualities.14 For example, in
the critical area of marital communication, the average Couple
Communication-trained participants outperformed 83 percent of couples who
had not participated in the program.
* An analysis of the Relationship Enhancement program shows that it
significantly improves marital relationships. As a result of the program,
participating couples reported better relationships than 83 percent of
couples that did not participate. (Participants in the Relationship
Enhancement program were predominantly lower-income couples.)
* A study conducted in 2002 documents the effectiveness of premarital
inventory questionnaires and counseling in preventing marital distress.
This approach yielded a 52 percent increase in the number of couples
classified as "most satisfied" with their relationship. Among the remaining
couples, more than half reported improved assessments of their
relationship. Among the highest-risk couples, more than 80 percent moved up
into a more "positive" category.15
* A 1993 meta-analysis of marriage and family counseling noted that,
among 71 studies that compared the results of counseling to no-counseling,
couples who participated in marriage counseling were better off than 70
percent of couples that did not participate in counseling.16
* An extensive review of the literature on the effectiveness of
marital counseling in preventing separation and divorce found dozens of
studies demonstrating that counseling was effective in reducing conflict
and increasing marital satisfaction.17

This scientific research demonstrates that marriage programs--whether they
are called marital preparation, enhancement, counseling, or skills
training--are effective. These studies make a strong case that marriages
are not merely enabled to survive, but can also thrive when couples learn
the skills necessary to make their relationships work. Moreover, the
research shows that these programs are effective in a variety of
socioeconomic classes. Polls also indicate that the overwhelming majority
of low-income couples that are at risk for out-of-wedlock childbearing or
marital breakup would like to participate in programs that would help them
improve their relationships.

Conclusion

The institution of marriage has been shown to be overwhelmingly beneficial
to children, adults, and society. However, for more than 50 years,
government policy has discouraged marriage through the penalties inherent
in the means-tested welfare system. There is now a broad consensus that
this trend should be reversed and that government should promote healthy
marriage. Marriage promotion has the potential to significantly decrease
poverty and dependence, increase child well-being and adult happiness, and
provide the safest environment for women and children.

Opponents of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative, who claim that
such a program would force women into violent and dangerous relationships
by coercing or encouraging them to get married, misrepresent the goals of
the program. By specifically targeting young adult men and women and
at-risk high school students with information about the long-term value of
marriage, marriage programs are preventative, not reparative, in nature.
They seek to prevent the isolation and poverty of welfare mothers by
intervening at an early point, before a pattern of broken relationships and
welfare dependence has emerged. By fostering better life decisions and
stronger relationship skills, marriage programs can increase the well-being
of both children and adults and can reduce the likelihood of poverty,
welfare dependence, and violent relationships.

Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and
Melissa G. Pardue is a Policy Analyst in the Domestic Policy Studies
Department, at the Heritage Foundation.
------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

1. Roughly three-quarters of the couples who are unmarried at the time of
their child's birth are cohabiting or romantically involved. The domestic
violence rate for such cohabiting or romantically involved couples, who
would be the main target for pro-marriage programs, is slightly less than 2
percent.

2. Information provided by Mary Myrick, Program Manager, Oklahoma Marriage
Initiative.

3. NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, "Why NOW Legal Defense Opposes
Federal Marriage Promotion in TANF Reauthorization," p. 2, at
www.nowldef.org/html/issues/wel/marriagebackgrounder.pdf.

4. Richard Tolman and Jody Raphel, "A Review of Research on Welfare and
Domestic Violence," Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 56, Issue 4 (2002).

5. Patrick F. Fagan, Robert W. Patterson, and Robert E. Rector, "Marriage
and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education
Works," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1606, October 25, 2002.

6. The initial, or baseline, interviews for the Fragile Families project
began in Austin, Texas, and Oakland, California, in the spring of 1998 and
were completed in 18 other cities by the fall of 2000. The baseline set of
data includes 4,898 completed interviews with mothers (representing 3,712
non-marital births and 1,186 marital births) and 3,830 completed interviews
with fathers. The national sample from 20 U.S. cities is representative of
all non-marital births to parents in these cities as well as parents
residing in U.S. cities with populations over 200,000. The baseline survey
was conducted by interviewing new mothers at the hospital within 48 hours
of giving birth; fathers were interviewed either at the hospital or
elsewhere as soon as possible after the birth. Three follow-up interviews
are to be conducted when the children are approximately 12 months, 30
months, and 48 months of age. The results of the first follow-up interview
were released in 2003.

7. National Crime Victimization Resource Guide, at
http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/NACJD/SDA/ncvs.html.

8. Robert E. Rector, Patrick F. Fagan, and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D.,
"Marriage: Still the Safest Place for Women and Children," Heritage
Foundation Backgrounder No. 1732, March 9, 2004.

9. Ibid.

10. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979-96.

11. Fagan et al., "Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence
that Marriage Education Works."

12. Ibid .

13. P. Giblin et al., "Enrichment Outcome Research: A Meta-Analysis of
Premarital, Marital, and Family Interventions," Journal of Marital and
Family Therapy, Vol. 11 (1985), pp. 257-271.

14. Mark H. Butler and Karen S. Wampler, "A Meta-Analytic Update of
Research on the Couple Communication Program," American Journal of Family
Therapy, Vol. 27 (1999), p. 223.

15. L. Knutson et al., "Effectiveness of the PREPARE Program with
Premarital Couples," in journal review, 2002.

16. William R. Shadish et al., "Effects of Family and Marital
Psychotherapies: A Meta-Analysis," Journal of Consulting and Clinical
Psychology, Vol. 61 (1993), p. 922.

17. James H. Bray and Ernest N. Jouriles, "Treatment of Marital Conflict
and Prevention of Divorce," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol. 21
(1995), p. 461.
 

------------------------------------------------------------------------
 
Reducing Domestic Violence: How the Healthy Marriage Initiative Can Help
by Melissa G. Pardue and Robert Rector
Backgrounder #1744

March 30, 2004

In the United States today, one child in three is born outside of marriage.
The decline of marriage is a prominent cause of child poverty, welfare
dependence, and many other social problems.

In response to these concerns, President George W. Bush has proposed the
Healthy Marriage Initiative to promote and encourage strong marriages. The
proposed program would provide $300 million annually in federal and state
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) money to state-level programs
that promote marriage and marriage skills, particularly among low-income
and "fragile" families. All participation in the President's marriage
program would be voluntary. The program would utilize existing
marriage-skills education that has proven effective in decreasing
conflict--and increasing happiness and stability--among target couples.

However, critics of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative often
assert that such a program would encourage or force vulnerable women into
violent and dangerous relationships. Specifically, critics argue that a
substantial portion of many low-income women who would participate in the
marriage program are in abusive relationships and that the program would
push women into marriages with abusive men, thereby increasing the rate of
domestic abuse.

Erroneous Criticisms

These arguments by opponents of the Healthy Marriage Initiative are
erroneous for a number of reasons:

1. Marriage-education programs that would be funded under the
President's Healthy Marriage Initiative have been shown to reduce--not
increase--domestic abuse.
2. The primary target groups for the healthy marriage programs would
be unmarried couples at the time of a child's birth, or young, at-risk
couples prior to a child's conception. The rate of domestic abuse in these
groups is extremely low--around 2 percent.
3. The prevalence of domestic abuse among low-income women is often
exaggerated by the use of statistics regarding whether or not a woman has
ever been abused in her lifetime rather than whether or not abuse is
occurring within a current romantic relationship.
4. Critics incorrectly assume that the target population for the
Healthy Marriage Initiative would be older, single mothers in the TANF
program. Typically, older welfare mothers have already severed ties with
the fathers of their children. Such relationships have often been dead for
several years: These mothers, therefore, are not good candidates for a
marriage program. Rather, healthy marriage programs would seek to improve
the stability and quality of relationships for low-income women at a
younger age. Couples at this stage of life--generally termed "fragile
families"--have relatively good prospects for entering into healthy, stable
marriages.
The rate of domestic violence among these couples is low--around 2
percent.1 Although the rate of current abuse suffered by older mothers on
welfare is far higher--around 20 to 30 percent--as noted, these women
would not be a target group of the Healthy Marriage Initiative.
Thus, the assertion that welfare mothers experience high rates of domestic
abuse is irrelevant to an assessment of the prospects of the Healthy
Marriage Initiative. By intervening at a younger age, the Healthy Marriage
Initiative would seek to improve the well-being of children and to reduce
future child poverty and welfare dependence.
5. Many low-income mothers are trapped in patterns of serial
cohabitation, moving through a sequence of fractured, failed relationships
with men. Domestic violence is most likely to occur within this pattern of
serial cohabitation. The Healthy Marriage Initiative could help prevent
couples from falling prey to this destructive pattern by providing them
with the knowledge and skills needed to build healthy, stable
relationships. The proper time for such training is when couples are at a
relatively young age--either prior to a child's conception or at the time
of a child's birth--before self-defeating patterns of distrust and acrimony
have developed.
By helping couples to avoid the pitfalls of serial failed relationships,
the Healthy Marriage Initiative will substantially reduce, rather than
increase, domestic violence. Indeed, unless couples are equipped with the
skills they need to develop healthy relationships, it is difficult to
imagine how the current rates of domestic violence in low-income
communities can be reduced.
6. Prototype healthy marriage programs, such as the Oklahoma Marriage
Initiative, have not led to increases in domestic violence. In Oklahoma,
more than 14,000 individuals have received training, but not a single
instance of domestic abuse linked to the program has been reported. The
marriage initiative works closely with local domestic violence prevention
groups, and these groups have made no complaints regarding the operation of
the program.2

Domestic Violence and Welfare Mothers

Opponents of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative claim that the
policy will target women who are likely to be in abusive relationships.
Critics also charge that the marriage program will push these vulnerable
women further into dangerous and violent relationships and possibly even
endanger their lives. For example, the NOW Legal Defense Fund asserts:

Because of the prevalence of intimate violence among women receiving public
assistance, promotion of marriage will jeopardize the safety and lives of
women and children. As many as 60 percent of welfare recipients are
survivors of domestic violence. Marriage-promotion programs, which target a
population that is made up to such a large degree of women who are domestic
violence survivors, can have disastrous results.... [I]f [the healthy
marriage initiative] goes forward, survivors may well be coerced into
abusive marriages that they may not survive.3

These ominous claims are based on a misunderstanding of marriage-promotion
programs and the characteristics of the couples who would participate in
them. First, the figure that 60 percent of welfare mothers are "survivors
of domestic violence" indicates that a high percentage of welfare mothers
have experienced some level of domestic violence at some point during their
lives; it does not mean that 60 percent of welfare mothers are experiencing
violence in a current relationship. The figures for current (or recent)
domestic abuse among welfare mothers are considerably lower: Some 20
percent to 30 percent have experienced violence in a current relationship
or within the past year. 4 While these figures are still regrettably high,
they indicate that most welfare mothers, at present, are not in abusive
relationships.

Furthermore, participation in marriage programs will be voluntary; no one
will be "coerced" to participate. In addition, marriage-promotion programs
do not assume that all relationships should be saved. In fact, rather than
pushing women further into abusive relationships, the programs would urge
women to leave situations where significant abuse is occurring. Marriage
education programs teach couples how to resolve disagreements peacefully: A
primary effect of these programs is to de-escalate conflict and
significantly reduce strife and acrimony within relationships.
Consequently, the programs have been shown to reduce domestic violence, not
increase it.5

The NOW Legal Defense Fund also incorrectly assumes that the main target
group of the Healthy Marriage Initiative would be older, single mothers on
welfare (i.e., mothers enrolled in the TANF program). However, because most
older welfare mothers have relationships with the fathers of their children
that collapsed years ago, they would not be a suitable target group for
marriage-promotion programs. Instead, the Healthy Marriage Initiative will
provide skills to unmarried couples before their relationships turn bitter
and acrimonious. By providing skills training at an early stage in a
relationship, marriage-promotion programs will help couples to build happy
and stable families in the future.

The Healthy Marriage Initiative will focus primarily on unmarried, young
adult couples around the time of their child's birth or--even better--prior
to their child's conception. These couples have been referred to as
"fragile families." The domestic abuse rate among "fragile family"
couples--the targets for healthy marriages programs--is only around 2
percent. This represents one-tenth of the domestic abuse level found among
current welfare mothers. By helping these couples build enduring and
harmonious relationships, the Healthy Marriage Initiative can substantially
reduce future domestic abuse.

What the Fragile Families Survey Shows

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study provides the best
information about the low-income couples who would be the focal point of
the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative. The study, which has been
conducted by a team of researchers at Princeton University's Center for
Research on Child Wellbeing and Columbia University's Social Indicators
Survey Center, is a joint academic survey of new parents. The study is
based on a nationally representative sample of parents--both married and
unmarried--at the time of a child's birth.6

Overall, the Fragile Families Survey reveals much surprising information.

* Most out-of-wedlock births occur among young adult women--not
teenagers in high school. The median age for women having children out of
wedlock is 22.
* Roughly half of unmarried mothers were cohabiting with the child's
father at the time of the baby's birth. Nearly 75 percent were romantically
involved with the father at the time of the child's birth.
* Very few unmarried fathers had drug or alcohol problems. About 98
percent of fathers had been employed during the prior year. Overall, the
median annual income of the unmarried fathers was $17,500.
* Most of the unmarried couples had a strong interest in marriage:
Approximately 73 percent of mothers and 88 percent of fathers believed that
they had at least a 50-50 chance of marrying each other in the future.
* Among all the unmarried couples in the Fragile Families Survey, the
domestic violence rate was 4 percent; however, among the roughly 75 percent
of unmarried couples who were cohabiting or romantically involved, the
domestic violence rate was lower--1.8 percent. These cohabiting and
romantically involved couples would be the main target group of
healthy-marriage programs.

Marriage as a Protective Institution

Contrary to the views of the NOW Legal Defense Fund, marriage tends to
protect women from domestic abuse rather than increasing it. In general,
domestic violence is more common in cohabiting relationships than in
marriages. Analysis from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS),
administered by the Department of Justice, also shows that mothers who are,
or have been, married are far less likely to suffer from violent crime than
are mothers who have never married. Specifically, data from the NCVS survey
show that:7

* Marriage dramatically reduces the risk that mothers will suffer
from domestic abuse. The incidence of abuse by a spouse, boyfriend, or
domestic partner is twice as high among mothers who have never been married
as it is among mothers who have been married (including those who have
separated or divorced).8
* Marriage dramatically reduces the prospect that mothers will suffer
from violent crime in general at the hands of intimate acquaintances or of
strangers. Mothers who have never married--including those who are single
and living either alone or with a boyfriend, and those who are cohabiting
with their child's father--are twice as likely to be victims of violent
crime as are mothers who have been married.9

The pattern of cohabiting relationships among low-income women is a major
factor in the increased risk for partner violence. More than half of all
children in poverty come from homes with a never-married mother, and nearly
two-thirds of welfare dependence occurs among households with mothers who
have never married.10 By intervening at an early point in the lives of
women, marriage programs would seek to break this cycle of cohabitation and
out-of-wedlock childbearing. They would provide the skills and training
needed to help women form loving, stable, and committed relationships
before becoming pregnant or moving in with a violent or abusive partner.

How the Healthy Marriage Initiative Would Make Women Safer

The 1996 welfare reform law established national goals of reducing
out-of-wedlock childbearing and increasing two-parent families. President
Bush's Healthy Marriage Initiative would seek to meet these original goals
of welfare reform by proposing--as part of welfare reauthorization--a new
model program to promote strong marriages. His proposed program would seek
to increase healthy marriage by providing at-risk individuals and couples
with:

* Accurate information on the value of marriage in the lives of men,
women, and children;
* Marriage-skills education that will enable couples to reduce
conflict and increase the happiness and longevity of their relationships;
and
* Experimental reductions in the financial penalties against marriage
that are currently contained in all federal welfare programs.

All participation in the President's marriage program would be voluntary.
The initiative would utilize existing marriage-skills education programs
that have proven effective in decreasing conflict and increasing happiness
and stability among couples. These programs have also been shown to be
effective in reducing domestic violence.11 The pro-marriage initiative
would not merely seek to increase marriage rates among target couples, but
would also provide ongoing support to help at-risk couples maintain healthy
marriages over time.

A well-designed marriage initiative would target participants early in
their lives, when attitudes and relationships are initially being formed.
Typically, such marriage-promotion programs would provide information to
at-risk high school students about the long-term value of marriage. They
would teach relationship skills to unmarried adult couples before the women
become pregnant--with a focus on preventing pregnancy before couples have
made a commitment to healthy marriages. The programs would also provide
marriage-skills training and relationship education to unmarried couples at
the "magic moment" of a child's birth and would offer marriage-skills
training to low-income married couples to improve the quality of their
marriage and to reduce the likelihood of divorce.

The primary focus of these marriage programs would be preventative, not
reparative. They would seek to prevent the isolation and poverty of welfare
mothers by intervening at an early point, before a pattern of broken
relationships and welfare dependence has emerged. By fostering better life
decisions and stronger relationship skills, marriage programs can increase
child well-being and adult happiness and reduce child poverty and welfare
dependence.

The Record of Success of Marriage Programs

Critics of the President's initiative often claim that there is no evidence
showing that the marriage education and enrichment programs envisioned by
the Healthy Marriage Initiative would work. This charge is simply false.
There is overwhelming evidence that programs that provide marriage-skills
training help couples to increase happiness, improve their relationships,
and avoid negative behaviors that can lead to marital breakup.

No fewer than 29 peer-reviewed social-science journal articles provide
ample evidence (from actual experience) that marriage education, training,
and counseling programs--some of which have been around for more than 30
years--have significantly strengthened the marriages of the couples that
have taken advantage of such programs.12 These studies--integrating
findings from well over 100 separate evaluations--show that a wide variety
of marriage-strengthening programs can reduce strife, improve
communication, increase parenting skills, increase stability, and enhance
marital happiness.

* One analysis--referred to by scientists as a
"meta-analysis"--integrated 85 studies involving nearly 4,000 couples
enrolled in more than 20 different marriage-enrichment programs. It found
that the average couple, after participating in a program, was better off
than more than two-thirds of couples that did not participate.13
* A 1999 meta-analysis of 16 studies of one of the oldest
marriage-enhancement programs, Couple Communication, observed meaningful
program effects with regard to numerous measures: Couples who took the
training experienced moderate-to-large gains in communication skills,
marital satisfaction, and other relationship qualities.14 For example, in
the critical area of marital communication, the average Couple
Communication-trained participants outperformed 83 percent of couples who
had not participated in the program.
* An analysis of the Relationship Enhancement program shows that it
significantly improves marital relationships. As a result of the program,
participating couples reported better relationships than 83 percent of
couples that did not participate. (Participants in the Relationship
Enhancement program were predominantly lower-income couples.)
* A study conducted in 2002 documents the effectiveness of premarital
inventory questionnaires and counseling in preventing marital distress.
This approach yielded a 52 percent increase in the number of couples
classified as "most satisfied" with their relationship. Among the remaining
couples, more than half reported improved assessments of their
relationship. Among the highest-risk couples, more than 80 percent moved up
into a more "positive" category.15
* A 1993 meta-analysis of marriage and family counseling noted that,
among 71 studies that compared the results of counseling to no-counseling,
couples who participated in marriage counseling were better off than 70
percent of couples that did not participate in counseling.16
* An extensive review of the literature on the effectiveness of
marital counseling in preventing separation and divorce found dozens of
studies demonstrating that counseling was effective in reducing conflict
and increasing marital satisfaction.17

This scientific research demonstrates that marriage programs--whether they
are called marital preparation, enhancement, counseling, or skills
training--are effective. These studies make a strong case that marriages
are not merely enabled to survive, but can also thrive when couples learn
the skills necessary to make their relationships work. Moreover, the
research shows that these programs are effective in a variety of
socioeconomic classes. Polls also indicate that the overwhelming majority
of low-income couples that are at risk for out-of-wedlock childbearing or
marital breakup would like to participate in programs that would help them
improve their relationships.

Conclusion

The institution of marriage has been shown to be overwhelmingly beneficial
to children, adults, and society. However, for more than 50 years,
government policy has discouraged marriage through the penalties inherent
in the means-tested welfare system. There is now a broad consensus that
this trend should be reversed and that government should promote healthy
marriage. Marriage promotion has the potential to significantly decrease
poverty and dependence, increase child well-being and adult happiness, and
provide the safest environment for women and children.

Opponents of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative, who claim that
such a program would force women into violent and dangerous relationships
by coercing or encouraging them to get married, misrepresent the goals of
the program. By specifically targeting young adult men and women and
at-risk high school students with information about the long-term value of
marriage, marriage programs are preventative, not reparative, in nature.
They seek to prevent the isolation and poverty of welfare mothers by
intervening at an early point, before a pattern of broken relationships and
welfare dependence has emerged. By fostering better life decisions and
stronger relationship skills, marriage programs can increase the well-being
of both children and adults and can reduce the likelihood of poverty,
welfare dependence, and violent relationships.

Robert Rector is Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, and
Melissa G. Pardue is a Policy Analyst in the Domestic Policy Studies
Department, at the Heritage Foundation.
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1. Roughly three-quarters of the couples who are unmarried at the time of
their child's birth are cohabiting or romantically involved. The domestic
violence rate for such cohabiting or romantically involved couples, who
would be the main target for pro-marriage programs, is slightly less than 2
percent.

2. Information provided by Mary Myrick, Program Manager, Oklahoma Marriage
Initiative.

3. NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, "Why NOW Legal Defense Opposes
Federal Marriage Promotion in TANF Reauthorization," p. 2, at
www.nowldef.org/html/issues/wel/marriagebackgrounder.pdf.

4. Richard Tolman and Jody Raphel, "A Review of Research on Welfare and
Domestic Violence," Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 56, Issue 4 (2002).

5. Patrick F. Fagan, Robert W. Patterson, and Robert E. Rector, "Marriage
and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education
Works," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1606, October 25, 2002.

6. The initial, or baseline, interviews for the Fragile Families project
began in Austin, Texas, and Oakland, California, in the spring of 1998 and
were completed in 18 other cities by the fall of 2000. The baseline set of
data includes 4,898 completed interviews with mothers (representing 3,712
non-marital births and 1,186 marital births) and 3,830 completed interviews
with fathers. The national sample from 20 U.S. cities is representative of
all non-marital births to parents in these cities as well as parents
residing in U.S. cities with populations over 200,000. The baseline survey
was conducted by interviewing new mothers at the hospital within 48 hours
of giving birth; fathers were interviewed either at the hospital or
elsewhere as soon as possible after the birth. Three follow-up interviews
are to be conducted when the children are approximately 12 months, 30
months, and 48 months of age. The results of the first follow-up interview
were released in 2003.

7. National Crime Victimization Resource Guide, at
http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/NACJD/SDA/ncvs.html.

8. Robert E. Rector, Patrick F. Fagan, and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D.,
"Marriage: Still the Safest Place for Women and Children," Heritage
Foundation Backgrounder No. 1732, March 9, 2004.

9. Ibid.

10. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979-96.

11. Fagan et al., "Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence
that Marriage Education Works."

12. Ibid .

13. P. Giblin et al., "Enrichment Outcome Research: A Meta-Analysis of
Premarital, Marital, and Family Interventions," Journal of Marital and
Family Therapy, Vol. 11 (1985), pp. 257-271.

14. Mark H. Butler and Karen S. Wampler, "A Meta-Analytic Update of
Research on the Couple Communication Program," American Journal of Family
Therapy, Vol. 27 (1999), p. 223.

15. L. Knutson et al., "Effectiveness of the PREPARE Program with
Premarital Couples," in journal review, 2002.

16. William R. Shadish et al., "Effects of Family and Marital
Psychotherapies: A Meta-Analysis," Journal of Consulting and Clinical
Psychology, Vol. 61 (1993), p. 922.

17. James H. Bray and Ernest N. Jouriles, "Treatment of Marital Conflict
and Prevention of Divorce," Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, Vol. 21
(1995), p. 461.

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