January 20, 2014


The Great Mom & Dad Experiment : The federal government has spent nearly a billion dollars to help poor couples stay together--with almost nothing to show for it. So why aren't we pulling the plug? (Tom Bartlett, 1/20/14, The Chronicle Review)

 In the fall of 2012, the government released the results of a three-year study of eight such programs, including this one in Oklahoma. They were nothing short of bleak: The programs, the study concluded, did not make couples more likely to stay together or get married. They did not increase the amount of time fathers spent with children. The parents were not more financially stable. Their children were not more emotionally secure. Worse, some programs showed negative outcomes: that is, the control group fared better than those who took the classes.

According to the government's own study, the programs "did not succeed."

You might think such a harsh assessment would spell the end of relationship education for the poor. But that isn't the case. The effort, which grew out of welfare reform under President Clinton, got its start under President Bush, and has been enthusiastically embraced by President Obama, enjoys broad bipartisan support. For the left, it's a shot at leveling the playing field. For the right, it's about strengthening families. For researchers who study families and relationships, it's a chance to watch their theories play out on a grand stage. And for organizations that run the programs, it is a significant source of income.

Plus it just feels right. Spend time with these couples--the teenage mother with a newborn on her shoulder, the middle-aged dad dangling his keys just beyond his infant's reach--and you can't help but root for them and for relationship education. Here is a way to help that goes beyond a handout. Here is a way to change the world, one couple at a time. As Mary Myrick, director of the Oklahoma program puts it: "Who could be against this?"

Matthew D. Johnson, for one. Not that he's against helping poor couples or even necessarily against relationship education. In fact, Johnson, an associate professor of psychology at Binghamton University and director of its Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory, examines why marriages fall apart and what can be done to keep people together. This is the stuff he cares about. And he started out believing that these programs were worthwhile. "I thought this would work," he says. "I wanted to apply these interventions to these populations." It made sense to him, and he eagerly awaited the results.

Now, as he sees it, the numbers are in, and they're terrible. Attempts to spin the data as anything other than a train wreck strike him as "optimistic or quixotic." "My bias is science and data," Johnson says. "I look at these data and say, 'They're not working.'"

Johnson wrote an article published last spring in American Psychologist making essentially that case. In the genteel, acronym-laden language of academic discourse, Johnson pretty much accused scholars who argue for continuing these programs of closing their eyes and pretending that the whole thing wasn't a bust. Even before the latest results were released, Johnson had argued in a 2012 paper that the programs were underperforming and perhaps ill-conceived. "For all of the energy invested in this issue, the outcomes thus far are unacceptable," he wrote. "There are clearly many new initiatives and interventions that are being implemented, but too few of them are built on solid science or are quantitatively tracking their success."

It's not just energy that's been invested. Since 2005, the federal government has spent more than $100-million annually on such programs (coming up with a more precise figure is tricky because of how the funds are divvied up). The money is drawn from the budget of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, created as part of the Clinton administration's welfare-reform law, which gives grants to states allowing them to provide assistance to those who fall below certain income levels. The number of families who receive direct support through TANF has dropped from 3.9 million in 1997 to 1.6 million in 2013, and some states have cut the size of payments in recent years. A 2011 report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that because of those cuts the payments "do much less to help families escape deep poverty than they did in 1996."

The money spent on relationship education is little more than a rounding error in TANF's $17-billion budget, but why spend any of those precious resources on a program that appears to be failing miserably?

That's what Benjamin Karney wonders. For the last couple of decades, Karney, a professor of social psychology at the University of California at Los Angeles, has studied marriages, how they either remain stable or deteriorate. He thinks the very idea of teaching relationship skills to low-income couples was probably misguided from the get-go, based on an unproved, and somewhat condescending, assumption. "The reason divorce rates are high among poor people isn't that they don't know things that other people know," Karney says. "In fact, there's a lot of evidence from my lab and from other labs that the ability to communicate effectively with your spouse is significantly associated with the stress that you're under in your life." Stress is toxic. We know, from multiple studies, including a much-discussed 2010 paper by the Nobel Prize-winning social scientist Daniel Kahneman, that higher levels of stress are associated with lower levels of emotional well-being. A 2009 study published in Clinical Psychology Review found that "stress may undermine otherwise adequate communication skills, lead to alienation in the couples and a higher risk for divorce."

Karney's point, then, is that poor couples don't get divorced because they're less adept at communication than couples with healthy 401(k)s and three-car garages. Poor people get divorced because they're poor, and being poor makes you stressed, and being stressed makes it harder for you to communicate, which makes it more likely that you'll split.

In some ways, though, that argument is now beside the point. The verdict is in, and Karney, like Johnson, thinks everyone should acknowledge that reality. "I don't believe our field and our science is served well by clinging to ideas that don't look promising," he says. "It makes us look like bad scientists."

Posted by at January 20, 2014 7:26 PM

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