classes, mistaking the correlation between being poor or of color and
being an unmarried parent as a causal link. Studies show Americans
value marriage regardless of income or race, and relationship classes
valentines this year, let’s ask them to give America’s low-income
families the gifts of respect and assistance. They can do this by
ending the annual diversion of more than $100 million from the
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) fund to programs
designed to instill an appreciation of marriage and to teach
relationship skills to poor couples and couples of color with the hope
that this will lead to more two-parent households.
The programs may sound great. Who can argue with the value of
supporting marriages? However, five major studies have demonstrated
that these programs simply don’t work. Now is the time to end them and
return the funds to TANF, where the money can be better spent on
helping families in more practical ways.
The rationale for focusing on marriage stems from the correlation
between being poor, or one of several ethnicities, and being an
unmarried parent. The fallacy here is seeing causation where there is
correlation. But the emphasis on marriage as a way of addressing
poverty has bipartisan support. Nevertheless, there is strong evidence
that Americans value marriage regardless of income or race and that
programs to teach relationship skills are ineffective.
To assess whether there are racial or income disparities in how much
people value marriage, the state of Florida commissioned a survey on
the attitudes of welfare recipients as well as low-, middle-, and
high-income Floridians regarding marriage. The answers were clear.
Welfare recipients and low-income respondents had the same values as
those in the middle class. In fact, it was the wealthiest Floridians
who needed an attitude change. These findings are consistent with
other research describing a strong appreciation for marriage among
poor women. If marriage is already valued, perhaps there are benefits
to teaching relationship skills.
One study examined the benefits of interventions designed to improve
the relationships of low-income, unmarried couples who were either
expecting or had recently had their first child. The study included
5,102 couples in eight cities and followed up with the couples 36
months later. There were no differences between the couples who were
taught relationship skills and the couples in the control group in
terms of relationship quality, partner support, communication skills,
infidelity, likelihood of still being together, or likelihood of being
Three other studies that looked closely at the effects of federal
spending on relationship education have had similarly disappointing
results. This was true when looking at married couples, programs
targeting an entire metropolitan area, and when examining demographic
The results are not limited to low-income couples. As detailed in an
article in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, my
colleagues and I taught middle-class couples in Los Angeles
relationship skills using two different methods. We then compared
these couples with couples in two different control conditions, one in
which the couples watched and discussed popular movies involving
marriage and another in which the couples refused treatment.
After three years, all four of the groups had about the same levels of
satisfaction with their marriages. More important, the groups that
were taught relationship skills displayed worse skills after the
training, and the couples who demonstrated the best relationship
skills were the ones that simply watched popular movies.
I hope Congress will reconsider the notion that campaigns to promote
marriage and relationship education classes lift families out of
poverty. By returning the millions spent on these failed programs to
the federal welfare fund, that money can be used for its original
purpose: helping poor families rise out of poverty.
Matthew D. Johnson is a psychology professor at Binghamton University
in Binghamton, N.Y., and director of its Marriage and Family Studies