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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Decreasing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage to Reduce Poverty
Paul R. Amato Rebecca A. Maynard


Researchers do not yet know whether programs to promote healthy marriage will be effective when delivered on a large scale, especially to low-income couples. Some observers might argue that such uncertainty is a good reason not to expand these services. The next several years, however, should begin to provide some answers. The Administration for Children and Families has funded three large-scale marriage demonstration projects, complete with rigorous evaluations. One, Supporting Healthy Marriage, involves marriage education and relationship skills training for couples who already are married or are planning to marry.84 The second, the Community Healthy Marriage Initiative, involves communitywide interventions, including public education campaigns to raise marital quality and improve parenting skills.85 The third, Building Strong Families, focuses on low-income, unmarried couples around the time of the birth of their child. It provides long-term marriage and relationship skills education, along with a variety of linked family support services, such as assistance with parenting, employment, or health problems.86

The evaluations of these programs, based on random assignment of couples to intervention and control groups, represent a good investment of government funding. Of the hundreds of programs for couples that exist today, surprisingly few have been rigorously evaluated. These ongoing evaluations will provide substantial information on what works and what does not. The findings will allow practitioners and policymakers to focus on programs that have the greatest chance of increasing the number of children growing up in stable and healthy two-parent families.

Much remains to be learned about how to foster healthy and stable marriages, especially among low-income couples. Still, evidence suggests that programs to reduce non-marital childbearing and strengthen marriage can be useful tools in fighting poverty. Such programs, on their own, will never be a panacea for eradicating economic disadvantage in American society. Wendy Sigle- Rushton and Sara McLanahan, using data from the Fragile Families Study, found that if the unmarried parents in the sample were to marry, nearly half of the poor single mothers and their children would rise above the poverty line. But about half of the mothers and their children would remain in poverty.87 That finding is a sobering reminder that poverty has many causes and that there is no simple strategy for improving the well-being of all the poor. Nevertheless, programs to reduce nonmarital childbearing and increase the number of healthy and stable marriages, when combined with a variety of other antipoverty policies, can play a useful role in easing economic hardship in the United States.