The Chronicle Review

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?

Brandi Simons for The Chronicle

Joe Taffe and Ashley Wiginton attend a Family Expectations workshop.
January 20, 2014

Couples with babies in tow arrive for dinner one evening at a red brick office building in downtown Oklahoma City. On the menu tonight are pasta and garlic bread, served on Styrofoam plates. The parents file in nervously, not sure what to expect. Seated at one table is a touchingly earnest couple, still in high school, who didn't plan to have a baby but now want to be the best possible parents. Nearby is a 23-year-old in a baseball cap, pulled low over his eyes, who admits he was dragged here by his girlfriend. There are older couples, too, including a forty-something dad who laughs and says he wants to get fatherhood right this time around. The group is racially mixed: black, white, Asian. Some are married, some not. They're in school or between jobs or working but not earning enough; to be eligible, your income can't be higher than twice the federal poverty level. They've come for the first session of a 13-week program that promises to teach them skills that will strengthen their relationships so that they can provide more stable homes for those babies.

Better partners make better parents, or so the thinking goes.

The program, called Family Expectations, is the cornerstone of an ambitious national effort to reduce poverty by helping moms and dads get along. Ambitious and well-funded: The amount the federal government has poured into so-called relationship education is fast approaching a billion dollars.

After dinner, the couples drop off their babies in a bright, well-equipped child-care room and receive beepers in case they're urgently needed. They proceed to the classroom, which is filled with comfy leather recliners. The classes are team-taught, interactive, and high-energy because if parents get bored, they won't return. Just getting them in the door is a challenge, which is why recruiters are dispatched to hospitals and food-stamp offices, promising parents rewards for showing up. Couples who attend all classes receive cash, up to $200, along with points that can be redeemed for baby-related items like diapers, toys, books, strollers.

One of the instructors tells how she, too, was once a struggling young mother and how she uses the skills she's about to teach them even today with her own family. "You all have taken a very important step in your lives. Making the decision to join the Family Expectations program is very important to your couple relationship as well as your children's relationship with you, this new family that you're starting to form," she says. "This is a very, very impactful program."

But is it really? 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."

Kathryn Edin thinks Johnson and Karney don't understand how big social interventions work. And she has no nice words to say about Johnson's published analysis. "I think he's wrong in every respect," she says. Edin, a professor of public policy at Harvard University, is the author, along with Maria Kefalas, of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, a book that grew out of a five-year study of 162 low-income single mothers. The idea that relationship education for the poor is now officially a failure is, in her judgment, ludicrous. "I don't think it's a reasonable read of the evidence," she says. "It's not a careful read, for sure."

Edin takes aim not just at Johnson, but at the executive summary of the data by Mathematica Policy Research, the research firm hired by the government to perform the study. The summary found that the program "did not succeed in its primary objective of improving couples' relationships." Edin thinks that conclusion is overly negative and discounts the data in Oklahoma. "I have no idea why it's written the way it is," she says. "It's completely nuts." Robert G. Wood, who was the director of the Mathematica study, working on the project over eight years, says it was "very carefully implemented" and that the results were, in the end, "pretty discouraging."

Like Edin, Scott Stanley thinks Johnson's take was too harsh. Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver, wrote a lengthy email to Johnson, which he also posted on his blog, Sliding vs. Deciding, taking Johnson on point by point. Yes, it's true that when you average the results at the eight sites they are "dismal regarding positive impacts." But because participation rates were so low everywhere but in Oklahoma, the numbers don't tell us much, Stanley argues. Only 55 percent of those assigned to take part in the program ever came to a session. (The Mathematica report dismisses this as an explanation, noting that even among those couples who did attend they "found little evidence of effects on relationship outcomes.") Yes, Stanley says, it's true that nearly all of the positive signs recorded at 15 months in Oklahoma disappeared at 36 months, but that kind of decay is to be expected. He compares it to a vaccination. "Doubtless some people get no effect, some get an effect like a tetanus inoculation that needs a booster from time to time, and some get an effect like a polio vaccine that gives permanent benefits." Just because a tetanus shot doesn't last forever, Stanley argues, doesn't mean it's not worthwhile.

Alan J. Hawkins is also a member of the silver-linings club. Hawkins, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University, says his first reaction upon seeing the data was "Gee, I wish it was stronger." But the more he examined the numbers, the more he came across reasons for hope. "I think there are some encouraging needles in the haystack," he says.

What are those needles? The statistic most often cited by supporters of relationship education is that 49 percent of parents in the Oklahoma program had lived with their children since birth, compared with 41 percent in the control group. That eight-percentage-point difference is the best news amid the bad. Also in Oklahoma, 67 percent of program participants stayed faithful to their partners, while 59 percent in the control group did. For this kind of social intervention, Edin says, even seemingly modest gains should be heralded. "People don't know how to read evaluations, and they don't know what to expect," she says. "They're not looking at the fine print." The numbers are not dramatic, but as Hawkins, Edin, and Stanley see it, they're something to build on, a reason to keep going.

Take a closer look at that fine print, though, and the story gets more complicated. Parents in the program were slightly less likely to cheat on their spouses, but the quality of the co-parenting relationship was no different from those who didn't take the classes. While fathers in the program were slightly more likely to be currently living with the child (55 percent versus 52 percent), those fathers didn't spend more time with the kids they lived with. Actually, according to the data, they spent slightly less time with their kids. Even more confusingly, the fathers in the control group reported being slightly more engaged with their children.

In Florida, it was worse. After three years, couples in the program there had poorer relationships, less stable families, and less involved fathers compared with the controls. The vaccinations, to borrow Stanley's analogy, seem to make the couples in Florida even sicker.

In 1999, Mary Myrick found her mission. That year her public-relations and event-planning company, Public Strategies, coordinated the State of Oklahoma's Summit on Marriage, an attempt by then-governor Frank Keating to bring attention to the problem of broken homes. Keating announced that he would direct a significant chunk, some $10-million, of federal TANF money to the cause of strengthening the marriages of couples in poverty. Myrick saw a niche: Her company took the lead and has helped drive the state's effort, along with serving as a model for programs around the country. Her background is in communications, not family research, but she delved deeply into the literature of the field and has come to know many of the top scholars. "Research has shown that children fare better when their parents are involved in a healthy, loving relationship together," she says. "Their school performance is better. They do better socially, academically. They just do better."

Over a dinner of pizza and salad at a bustling restaurant near her company's headquarters, Myrick confesses that, when she first heard the results of the three-year study, she was distressed. The program she had built over more than a decade was being deemed almost entirely ineffective. But after her initial disappointment, she took the study as a call not to give up but to work harder. "It's not good enough for me." she says. "So every day I'm asking, what if we tried this? What if we do this?"

She didn't read Johnson's paper at first. When she did, she didn't think much of it. She notes that he never visited Oklahoma (though he did visit a similar program in the Bronx, closer to where he lives). Myrick says it's important to measure the outcomes, "and I'm all on board doing it, but you have to balance it with the qualitative work. You have to balance it by coming here to see with your own eyes, by talking to these couples, the personal testimonials."

She has talked to the couples, hundreds of them. She has heard from moms and dads who say they can talk about their problems now when they couldn't before. She's heard from fathers who say they used to get violent when they were angry and now they don't. Those are the intangibles that you can't see when you're scrutinizing decimal places on a chart. "That's context," says Myrick. "That's hard to measure."

Talking to Myrick, it's obvious that she is sincere in her concern for the plight of poor couples. But she is also running a successful for-profit company that depends, to a large degree, on federal funds (her company receives $4.5-million in TANF money each year). Scholars like Edin and Stanley have been involved as advisers to the program and get paid for their time when they visit, which has raised some eyebrows. "I'm not implying that anyone's getting rich off of it," says Johnson. But "I do think we need to consider what people have to gain."

Karney puts it more bluntly: "Some of those people who are making that argument are getting some of that money, so it's not so surprising that some who are personally benefiting are saying we should not turn off the spigot."

In an email, Stanley points out that such compensation is not uncommon. "I would have a hard time seeing how that would establish a conflict of interest in that the advisory board does not profit in any way by whether or not Oklahoma succeeds," he writes. Edin agrees. "I get paid for my time to go to a meeting once a year," she writes in an email. "I could easily sell the 2.5 days elsewhere."

The program itself isn't cheap. It costs roughly $11,000 per couple, a price tag that both critics and supporters agree would have to drop drastically before the program could be expanded nationwide. Sending out recruiters, paying for multiple teachers per class, covering frills like dinner and diapers and taxis—it adds up. But this is what has proved necessary to get couples to attend. Many of them will readily admit that it's the money and the rewards that persuaded them to come. Free instruction by itself isn't a sufficient inducement. According to Myrick, the cost is worth it. "We're paying them less than minimum wage to get something that we believe to be effective," she says. "What's the worst thing that happens? That someone making 200 percent of poverty or less gets some diapers?"

The most interesting argument in favor of continuing the program is as follows: The numbers don't matter. The data aren't relevant. Big social programs rarely show much in the way of positive outcomes, and there's no reason this one should be any different. Detecting significant impacts in large-scale social interventions is "very rare," says the University of Denver's Stanley. Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, who was a senior adviser to President Bush on welfare policy and a longtime supporter of relationship education, agrees. "This is a typical pattern in social science," he says. "Good studies find that the impacts are modest, if any."

The example almost everyone mentions is Head Start. Nearly 5,000 3- and 4-year-olds were tracked from the time of their enrollment in the program through third grade. At first, children in the program did seem to enjoy a minimal advantage over a control group, but by third grade that upside had evaporated. According to a government-sponsored report on the program published in 2012, "All we can say is, after the initially realized cognitive benefits for the Head Start children, these gains were quickly made up by children in the non-Head Start group." That one line would seem to undercut the rationale for a federal program that costs $8-billion a year. Sequestration cuts reduced that amount by $400-million, but the program remains enormous—and, if the government's own data are to be believed, enormously ineffective.

Yet there's no serious talk of scrapping Head Start. Why hold relationship education to a tougher standard?

Johnson finds that argument irrelevant. "I believe them that there are a lot of government programs that don't work that cost a lot of money," he says. Does that mean you're forced to continue this one, he wonders? At what point do you call it a day? Those questions go beyond relationship education and, as Johnson points out, they're more than just academic. "We are mucking around in people's lives," Johnson says. "We are obligated to look at the effect that our interventions are having and believe the data—and not just the data that agree with our preconceived ideas."

Supporters say quitting now would be a mistake. Give relationship education more time, they say. Myrick says she is constantly learning more about how to make her program more effective. Early on, instructors read the curriculum to students; now it's more like a show than a class. Kathryn Edin contends that pulling the plug would be, in essence, abandoning the people who need help most. "Poor kids are looking at really tough situations in America today," she says. "They're in trouble. And their parents want to do the right things, and they don't have the skills and the resources to do them. If you don't intervene, they will fail."

Johnson and Karney say that the choice doesn't have to be between doing nothing or doing something. It could be between doing what we're doing now or doing something else. "I don't want to give up on couples," says Karney. "But if we've put almost a billion dollars into studying it, maybe it's time to say, 'Are there any new ideas out there?'"

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle.