WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–A recent government agency report finding that marriage promotion programs have not helped women escape poverty–a central tenet of welfare policy under President George W. Bush–gives Stephanie Coontz the chance to say "I told you so."

Coontz, a history professor at Evergreen State College in Tacoma, Wash., says unemployment and low wages erode family stability and jobless women are less likely to marry than their employed counterparts.

Marriage as a miracle solution for the poor "ignores the many ways in which poverty diminishes people’s ability to build and sustain stable family relationships," Coontz wrote in a 2002 paper about marriage and poverty, published by The American Prospect magazine.

Coontz, author of the 2005 book "Marriage, a History" and other books about marriage, has long argued that the stresses of unemployment and low wages erode family stability.

In her 2002 paper she also pointed to research showing that low-income men’s wages–when adjusted for inflation–have decreased over the past few decades, contributing to a decline in marriage rates.

Daniel Lichter, a sociology professor at Cornell University who has studied marriage patterns among unwed and married mothers, also finds his conclusions echoed by the government report, issued in May.

While two-parent families typically enjoy higher household incomes, married women are also better educated and have more resources.

"Poverty is a cause rather than a consequence of marital status," Lichter concludes.

When comparing marriage rates before and after welfare reform–during the period of marriage promotion programs–Lichter said he found they had no appreciable effect.

The government evaluation conducted by a policy research group for the U.S. Administration for Children and Families found that the government-sponsored Building Strong Families project, which targets new, unwed parents, failed overall to strengthen couples’ relationships, increase marriage rates or ultimately change economic status.

Marriage Idea Gained Momentum

The idea that marriage could alleviate poverty among single mothers gained momentum following a major redesign of welfare in 1996 that imposed new work requirements and time limits on the duration of a woman’s government child support.

The major outcome of that was a program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, a block grant to states that mainly aided single, female heads of households. The new law stipulated that some TANF funds could be used to "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families."

In 2002 President Bush elevated the importance of marriage as a tool to reduce poverty when he launched the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which Congress supported with $150 million in annual grants for marriage and fatherhood programs from 2006 to 2010.

The project failed "to yield better outcomes for participants," the Administration for Children and Families said in a press statement accompanying the report. In the wake of the findings, it said it endorses the "more comprehensive approach" of a $500 million Fatherhood, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund from President Obama’s 2011 budget.

The Fatherhood Innovation Fund will have marriage and relationship components, but will also provide resources for mental health and domestic violence.

Government sources could not immediately confirm that total funding for marriage promotion would actually decrease under Obama’s expanded approach.

Two Study Outliers Emerge

Two outliers emerged in the study of the Building Strong Families program.

While the program registered zero impact in six of eight total sites, two locations, Baltimore and Oklahoma, reported conflicting results.

Baltimore couples in the study suffered a higher incidence of physical assault and fathers were less likely to financially support their children. In Oklahoma, the opposite happened to those enrolled in the program–the couples’ relationships improved, as did the economic assistance from the fathers.

These cases fuel the arguments for both sides of the marriage promotion debate.

Tim Casey is a senior attorney with Legal Momentum, a women’s advocacy group based in New York. Since the inception of the Healthy Marriage Initiative Casey’s group has raised concerns about pushing women into potentially abusive relationships.

"When the government is involving itself in relationships between individuals it has to be very, very sensitive to the issue of domestic violence," said Casey. He noted that between 50 and 60 percent of women on welfare are victims of domestic violence.

Casey said that federal funds are wasted on unproven marriage programs. Instead, they should be devoted to economic supports like cash assistance, child care and transitional employment.

On the other side of the debate, Robert Rector, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation based in Washington, D.C., argues that marriage promotion is still untested, since the millions so far invested in marriage promotion is a pittance compared to the billions of other welfare assistance that single mothers receive annually. He said marriage promotion programs didn’t get the kind of public advertising and education they needed.

"Evaluating Building Strong Families alone without that social context is like evaluating a smoking cessation program without the surgeon general’s warning and then concluding that you can’t stop cigarette smoking," Rector said in an interview.

No Impact on Family Economic Well-Being

The May study of marriage promotion programs found they had "no effect on family economic well-being." The differences in families who participated in the program living in poverty, struggling to pay bills and receiving welfare compared to a control group were statistically insignificant.

Nakia Otteen, 25, of Del City, Okla., joined Family Expectations, a relationship education program that was part of the recent study. As an expectant mother she learned how to communicate better with the baby’s father. Otteen described her partner as a good person, father and companion. They plan to marry.

But when asked why she hasn’t yet married, Otteen answered that she wanted to feel more economically secure first.

"It really is financial right now," she said, explaining that the baby had caused financial strain, her partner’s job was unstable and she wanted to move from her two-bedroom apartment to a three-bedroom house before saying "I do."

Another Family Expectations participant, Tanille Adair, 22, of Oklahoma City, Okla., expressed wariness about relying on a man’s financial support.

"You can have a man that got a lot of money and do you dirty and that’s not cool," she said.

Adair was required to attend the program as a welfare recipient. A mother of two, she knows the disadvantages that many children face when growing up in single parent households. But she says she hasn’t met the right person and a wedding is costly.

Julia Marsh is a Washington-based correspondent covering domestic and foreign affairs for a Japanese newspaper.

For more information:

The U.S. Administration for Children and Families report:

The Fatherhood, Marriage, and Families Innovation Fund:

What is Marriage Promotion? Legal Momentum: