Thursday, January 3, 2013

Family Stability and Relationship Education Services: A Comment on Cherlin’s Critique

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist studying families, published an opinion in Bloomberg on 12-25-12, entitled Do Unmarried Poor Have Bad Values or Bad Jobs?  In it, he writes several things I will comment on here.  In the piece, he says: 

“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 just fallen flat. Even if you were a skeptic all along of the wisdom of the government promoting marriage, as I was, this isn’t 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.”

To his point about family instability, I can only say, “Too right.” (Not as in too right or too left but as in very correct.) He covers various points about the costs of family instability to society in his piece, and he notes that children in the U.S. whose parents are married have far more likelihood of family stability than parents of children who cohabit. I have increasingly emphasized family instability because it is a very big deal (see my piece on The Perfect Storm).  As Cherlin writes in his piece, “I also am convinced that children do best in stable family environments and that repeated parental breakups and ‘repartnering’ can be harmful to them.” He is so “onboard” with understanding this societal issue that, before I take issue with his piece, I will first recommend his book, The Marriage-Go-Round (I will even link that to Amazon. Wish my critics would give links to books I’ve written or co-authored!). 

I am bothered by two points in Cherlin’s piece, and I want to give you the other side. 

First, Cherlin contextualizes the type of service being tested as “government promoting marriage.”  He gives a brief history of these efforts that were, over the past 10 years, particularly encouraged by the Bush administration. All such programs stemmed from the welfare reform law of 1996 in which President Clinton and the Republican congress followed through on Clinton’s campaign vow to end welfare as we knew it. Under the foundational principles of the welfare reform act of 1996, states were encouraged to try to increase the formation and stability of two parent families. Few states attempted anything of the like, and the Bush administration subsequently provided funding and grants to increase these efforts.  Some of these types of efforts have been continued under the Obama administration as well. And whatever else you may think of such efforts, I can tell you that a type of service that is historically simply not available to low income families became possible under such initiatives.  

I do not like seeing such efforts described as “promoting marriage.” Cherlin’s piece implies that many of the government supported efforts in this area, of the last decade, focused on the values of low income individuals about marriage. That’s not only not true about programs, it’s not true about the values people already hold. We’ve known well, and for well over a decade, that the very poor are less likely to marry for reasons other than not valuing marriage. In fact, they tend to value it more than others (for example, see Kathy Edin and Maria Kefalas’ book, Promises I Can Keep). 

Here’s my beef, and it’s a large burger with fries and a Coke.  I see this term “marriage promotion” fairly often in journal articles and policy discussions and I think it mischaracterizes what most of these efforts have been about. You would be hard pressed to find any substantial push on those receiving such services to go and get married, as if doing so would magically solve their problems in life. Cherlin rightly describes some of the services (though a bit narrowly I think) as ‘“relationship skills” programs to improve communication, avoid conflict and build trust.’ Such services are not generally new—though there is much new in the services devised to meet the needs of the economically disadvantaged. 

Cherlin goes on to emphasize the interplay between the economy, structural changes in the job market, and the current level of family instability and non-marriage among the economically disadvantaged. These are important, valid points. For an excellent piece on this theme from earlier this year, see the article in the New York Times by Jason DeParle, entitled Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’ (also, see earlier blog entry I wrote on this point.)

Economics, relationship quality, and relationship commitment all play dramatic roles in what is unfolding in understanding family instability. And do not forget what I keep coming back to. One of the main reasons why children of unmarried couples, especially those at lower incomes, are much more likely to experience family instability is not that their biological parents are worse parents than marrieds—unmarried couples are simply far less likely to be having a child in the context of an already settled, mutual commitment to the future. The important policy matter is that these couples are much more vulnerable, on average, than other couples.

My second point has to do with the findings of the large, federally funded study that Cherlin discusses. See his piece for more details. The study is called The Building Strong Families Study (BSF).  What Cherlin describes is quite accurate; what he leaves out is too important to have been left out. 

First off, I should point out that this large study (BSF) tested one of the most expensive models of the recent government efforts, and with a particularly challenging population: couples having a child who are economically disadvantaged and who are not married. The rate of family instability for these groups is very high. Here is what is not mentioned in Cherlin’s piece that I think is worth you knowing about.  

This large study included 8 sites, nationally. In only one of these 8 sites did most couple receive any substantial amount of the planned services. In Oklahoma’s Family Expectations Program, a combination of cutting-edge efforts to reduce barriers to participation, reinforcements for attending, and quality of the services led to exceptional attendance. Attendance was dismal across the rest of the sites. And, if you follow any media and opinion pieces on this study (and related issues), you are almost always only being told about the findings averaged across the sites. Only the Oklahoma site had solid results on many dimensions of relationship quality at the 15 months assessment. 

As for the past and recent (3 years out) outcomes, As Cherlin notes in his piece, “Only the Oklahoma site showed some positive effects.” But what is not mentioned is that the Oklahoma site was the only one where there was a statistically significant impact on an important outcome at the 3 year point: in the program group, 49% of the families had lived together continuously since the birth of the child whereas, for the control group, 41% of the families had remained together in this way.

What were we talking about here? Oh yes, family instability. 

I need to explain this, as you might think that 49% compared to 41% does not sound like much of a big deal. That difference in 8 percentage points at three years out amounts to a 20% increase in the likelihood of these families continuously living together if they were in the program group.  And this is a finding on a core measure of family wellbeing (stability). It also reflects something that is rare in large, rigorous studies of government programs. What’s rare? The fact that this impact is statistically significant, it is large, and it is relevant.  You might think this happens all the time in studies of government programs, but I am using the word “rare” deliberately, here. There is an almost unbelievably weak record of lasting impacts in studies of most government supported programs to achieve specific effects. Take jobs training as just one example. The record of effectiveness is quite poor; and I do not mean, by this, to argue against such services.  The dismal evidence means that such programs need to be made more effective than they now are—if possible. [Want to check me out on this? Start here, in this fairly recent GAO report. Try searching for the paragraph that begins with “Little is known” and read that and go from there in your studying of evidence in government programs, if you like. There is no shortage of information on the internet.]

Now, back to this 8% difference in family stability. This finding suggests that if you put 1000 low income, unmarried couples through this program, 80 families (80 two parent families) will be together three years later that otherwise would not have been. As Cherlin notes, this particular type of program is expensive, averaging $11,000 per couple. Much of the services initiated in the past 10 years or as part of the federal initiatives cost far less. Further, these more expensive programs could very likely come down in cost through further testing and refinement. Even if that cost remained that high, consider this math that assumes no improvements in cost efficiencies: 1000 couples treated times $ 11,000 equals total program cost. Divide that product by the 80 families still together who otherwise would not be. That means it cost $ 137,500.00 per family for that stability (and this assumes no other benefits to anyone). That sounds like an awful lot of money, but you don’t have to have be around government family policy discussions very long to suspect that the impacts of early family instability for children have lifetime costs to society well exceeding that amount. And that can be considered a starting point to work from, not the end of that adventure in government policy and programs.  

So, what’s my point? It’s twofold.  Many of the efforts of the last 10 years to increase family stability (and, yes, in marriage where possible) have been routinely mischaracterized. Whatever else is true or not, one of the things that happened these past 10 years is that a type of service usually not remotely available to low income couples became more widely available to them. And there is body of evidence that such strategies are generally effective (click here for more information). In this particular, large government study just reaching the 3 year point (BSF), there was an unusual, statistically significant, long-term result on one of the most important outcomes in this field—and within the only site that got a substantial number of couples into the intervention. I am far from Pollyannaish about all this, but this is worth thinking more about. You are not going to see this point made in most reports on the study because, like as Andrew Cherlin admirably confessed about his own views in his piece, most family policy experts have been skeptics of such efforts. There is something to build on in these findings. 

Disclaimer:  I try to be very above board, so here is my disclaimer. You should know that my colleague Howard Markman and I developed a program for couples called PREP which was adapted by Pam Jordan (Becoming Parents), and that was a core part of the total program delivered in Oklahoma. I receive income from PREP. Further, I have been a long-time adviser for the efforts in Oklahoma. Like Andrew Cherlin, I am pretty skeptical of many things in my field. But I clearly see this area of work  as the “glass half full” and not the “glass all empty.” But do not take the word of either of us.  You can check any of these assertions for yourself in numerous reports and pieces on the web. But please set your expectations to start with by looking for compelling evidence of lasting impact for most government programs. Otherwise, you can too easily have an unfair standard of comparison for programs such as the one this piece focuses on.