Parents’ marital status is a key correlate of child wellbeing. The economic and social benefits of marriage for children’s well-being have been well documented through rigorous scientific research. Some of these benefits are related directly to married families’ higher income, while others are the result of family stability and other social processes. Because of its link to child wellbeing, there is great public policy and program interest in how to support healthy, stable marriages, particularly among parents.
Federal Efforts: Healthy Marriage Initiative
The federal Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) started in February 2002. This mission of the HMI is to help couples, who have chosen marriage for themselves, gain greater access to marriage education services, on a voluntary basis, where they can acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage.
The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) implements the HMI by supporting marriage in appropriate federal programs, conducting demonstration projects in partnership with states and localities, and researching marriage and marriage programs. Making marriage education accessible and appropriate for low-income families is a major component.
The foundation of the HMI is a series of federal grants awarded by ACF’s Office of Family Assistance (OFA) to states and communities to test new ways to promote and support healthy married-parent families and encourage responsible fatherhood. The Deficit Reduction Act (PL 109-171) of 2005 provides $100 million per year for research and demonstrations that support healthy marriage from fiscal year 2006 through 2010. Specifically, the DRA authorizes competitive funding for demonstration projects that promote healthy marriages through advertising campaigns aimed at the general public and programs and activities for high school students, non-married expectant parents, engaged couples or persons interested in marriage, married couples including those at risk for divorce, and couples in at-risk communities. As of September 2006, 226 grants have been awarded.
Other healthy marriage grants have also been awarded through the Office of Child Support Enforcement, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Children’s Bureau, the Administration for Native Americans, and the Office of Community Service.
Preliminary research suggests that teaching people “marriage skills” such as communication techniques has potential to increase marital stability and satisfaction. Currently, a broad and diverse range of marriage education program exists across the country. These programs vary dramatically in terms of context, funding, setting, collaboration with other community services, staffing, services provided, format, dosage, and target population. For example, marriage education may occur in high schools; social service, religious, and in-home settings; and community centers. It may last a few hours or be delivered over the course of several months. It may be publicly-funded, offered through a church, or sold by a private institute. It may target high school students, engaged couples, expectant parents, or “empty nesters.” Participants may be single, dating, engaged, married, or co-parenting
It is important to note that marriage education is generally not marriage promotion, but rather seeks to provide individuals, couples, and families with communication skills as well as other techniques, knowledge, and support necessary to make healthy decisions around dating, mate selection, marriage, divorce, and child bearing and rearing. Consideration of domestic violence is a critical component; personal safety is paramount to healthy relationships.