About 10 years ago, when I started writing about the “marriage renaissance” in America — a phrase I first heard from Smart Marriages founder Diane Sollee — I heard curious comments about the state of marriage research.
No one wants to study marriage — it’s “passe,” more than a few marriage experts told me. Divorce is the hot topic, they said, plus no one wants to denigrate single motherhood or get into marriage’s inherent problems of patriarchy and domestic violence.
Thankfully, times have changed.
In 2001, the Bush administration began testing the idea of funding marriage education, especially for low-income families. Authorizing legislation finally was passed, and in 2006, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) awarded an unprecedented $150 million a year to some 216 “healthy marriage” and “responsible fatherhood” projects.
All told, about $750 million is slated to be invested in these activities — a formidable first step toward reviving a healthy family culture in America.
Recently, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on these grants.
HHS has launched four long-term studies about marriage and fatherhood programs, it noted. Final results won’t be in for several years — 2011 and 2013 — but “the primary focus of HHS’ research is to determine the impact, if any,” these programs have on couples, families and fathers, the GAO wrote.
My position is that this kind of marriage research is welcome and long overdue. But when I recently spoke with two marriage insiders, I was surprised by their cautionary notes.
Chris Gersten, who worked on these issues as principal deputy assistant secretary at HHS, warned that the marriage research is being conducted “too early.” Most marriage and fatherhood programs are still in their infancy and it’s unwise to study them so soon, he said.
Also, it has taken 40 years for the American family to reach its current state of fragmentation, said Mr. Gersten, who now heads the Fatherhood and Marriage Leadership Institute. “You’re not going to get short-term linkages between marriage education and reductions in divorce in less than one generation.”
Theodora Ooms, senior consultant for the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, has often lamented with me about the dearth of good research and data collection on marriage, but even she is nervous about the HHS studies.
Marriage education is “such a new field” and so many programs are new, she said. “How do you say whether a program is successful or not? I am worried that [the grading system] will be too narrow.”
Moreover, she said, the studies might not capture the culturally powerful “meta,” or overarching, messages about marriage and fatherhood.
For example, one “meta” message might be the realization that just like people need to read books and go to classes to be competent parents, they need to learn how to be successful in relationships, Mrs. Ooms said. Another “meta” message is simply that marriage and responsible fatherhood are valuable, which is why “we put money into it.”
Bottom line, she said, it would be terrible if people looked at these big studies and somehow concluded that marriage and fatherhood programs didn’t work or were a waste of money.
Mrs. Ooms’ point, especially, resonates. In 2006, I was permitted to spend time “inside” one of these big studies in Baltimore. I witnessed the passion and dedication of the outreach workers, study staff and teachers, and, most importantly, the genuine desire of the couples — all of whom were new parents — to improve their relationships.
It would indeed be a shame if researchers only asked, “Did you marry (or divorce)?” Some of the most profound scenes I saw were men and women bravely choosing to buck their dysfunctional family histories and neighborhood mores and adopt new attitudes and behaviors for the sake of each other, their children and their relationships.
• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.