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Middle class offers marriage model

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.

In 2005, Congress authorized $150 million a year for promoting healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood. The most visible project was a social experiment to help young, unmarried couples who were expecting a child, or who had just had one, stay together and marry.

The Administration for Children and Families engaged well-known and dedicated researchers and clinicians to design new “relationship skills” programs to improve communication, avoid conflict and build trust. With high hopes, it hired a leading research firm, Mathematica Policy Research, to recruit about 5,000 couples in eight sites across the nation.

Half of the couples, chosen at random, were offered the program and some additional services, at an average cost of $11,000 a couple. The other half served as a control group. Both sets of couples were followed for three years.

The agency released the long-awaited final results on Nov. 30: Relationship-skills education had failed to contain the forces that pull young, unmarried couples apart. Couples offered the program were no more likely to have remained together or to have married than were those who weren’t.

Nor was there a difference in relationship quality between the two groups. Only the Oklahoma site showed some positive effects.

Like many other liberal social scientists, I’m uncomfortable with having government favor one form of family life over others. Yet I also am convinced that children do best in stable family environments and that repeated parental breakups and “repartnering” can be harmful to them. Stable families don’t have to involve a marriage, but in the United States (unlike, say, Sweden) cohabiting relationships don’t last very long. Marriage is the way most American parents maintain stable bonds.

Only 57 percent of couples in the program were still romantically involved after three years. Many of their children will see a succession of parents’ new partners. Some will grow up in complex families with full siblings, step-siblings, half-siblings, parents and parent-figures spread across several households.

Yet the lesson of the marriage-promotion experiment shouldn’t be to simply give up trying to encourage stable relationships. There are broad hints elsewhere in American society about where we should go next. While marriage has been in decline among the poor and the working class, it has strengthened among the college-educated middle class.

Young adults who have graduated from four-year colleges are more likely to marry than are less-educated young adults. More than 90 percent wait to have children until after they have married. Since 1980, the divorce rate has dropped sharply for the college-educated and is now down to the levels of the mid-1960s.

College-educated Americans have benefited from trends in the U.S. economy over the past few decades. They can get jobs designing and marketing clothes, electronics and toys now made overseas. They become the managers who hire call-center workers in India to explain our phone bills to us.

Meanwhile, less-educated young adults, who can no longer manufacture those goods or answer those calls, are hesitant to marry. Instead, they are increasingly having children in brittle cohabiting relationships.

Is it just a coincidence that the winners in our globalized and automated economy are turning toward marriage while the losers are turning away? If not, then marriage and childbearing patterns have become one more manifestation of the growing economic inequality in American society.

Conservative analysts argue that the decline of marriage among working-class Americans reflects a crisis of values rather than a changed economy: a lack of commitment and work discipline among young men and a societal drift toward permissiveness in sexuality and childbearing.

It is true that a half-century ago living together was frowned on, and having a child outside of marriage was shameful. Cultural changes since then have allowed young adults to form intimate partnerships and to have children without committing to long-term relationships.

Yet college-educated Americans have been exposed to the same cultural forces as the less-educated, and they are still centering their family lives around marriage. So there must be more to the story than changing values.

When sociologists Pamela J. Smock, Wendy D. Manning and Meredith Porter asked moderately educated young adults in Toledo what they needed in order to marry the partners they were living with, most pointed to financial issues. Leroy, 29 and recently unemployed, said, “I don’t really know ’cause the love is there uh ... trust is there. Everything’s there except money.”

Without an improvement in the labor market for young adults who don’t have a college education, efforts to instill commitment probably wouldn’t be any more useful than teaching relationship skills turned out to be. The Administration for Children and Families is also supporting evaluations of programs that combine employment services with relationship services.

Perhaps these programs will be more effective at helping young adults whose fundamental problem is not values or communication but finding a decent-paying, steady job. Making a place for these young adults in a transformed economy may be our best hope of promoting stable relationships.

Andrew J. Cherlin is a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University. He wrote this for Bloomberg News