Welfare reform’s marriage promotion programs have not only had little impact on the plight of poor families, looks like they’ve also done a pretty lousy job of pressing impoverished couples into the right-wing mold of “family values.”

Mathematica Policy Research evaluated Building Strong Families, a flagship marriage-focused program operating in several states, and concluded that it’s been a flop, though the results differ intriguingly along racial lines. Overall, the program failed to increase couples’ likelihood of tying the knot, didn’t increase fidelity, “did not improve couples’ ability to manage their conflicts” and “had no effect on how likely couples were to experience intimate partner violence.”

But Joseph DiNorcia, Jr., of SIECUS argues on RH Reality Check that from the start, BSF was intended to serve not poor families, but a right-wing agenda:

Projects like BSF are futile because they promote specific values, rather than overall well-being. Their object is, in fact, not effectiveness. Instead, they seek the successful advancement of a particular moral agenda: heterosexual marriage.

Still, Mathematica (which has similarly debunked the myths behind abstinence-only sexuality education) said BSF has “improved the relationship quality of African American couples”:

It improved the relationship quality of couples in which both members were African American, leading to more support and affection, better conflict management, increased fidelity, and reductions in intimate partner violence. In contrast, BSF did not affect the relationship quality of couples who were not African American and actually increased the rate at which these couples broke up.

So BSF failed on goal number one, promoting holy matrimony, and yet Black couples appear to benefit from the program’s counseling or educational services. Why not Latino or white couples, too? Is the relative impact of services particularly pronounced for Black couples because they’re starting from a point of greater disadvantage? Mathematica stresses that more research is needed to grasp the long-term outcomes, reasons for disparities, and the effect on children’s well-being.

In any case, before politicians hail BSF as a blessing for all those unfortunate Black “welfare moms,” they should divorce the goal of helping parents get along better from the far more complex question of whether these programs make sense as part of welfare.

At a time when conservatives have rabidly attacked the supposedly profligate welfare state, isn’t it strange that there’s always money for magical-thinking programs like Building Strong Families? Why do tightfisted lawmakers sink federal largess into unproven social engineering that peddles outmoded and often racist values, yet they can’t find money for schools, job creation, or child nutrition initiatives—programs that may do more to strengthen families and foster opportunity than exchanging vows ever could?

Yes, some Black couples enjoy greater stability as the result of federally sponsored social services. But where does that leave their families? Despite some progress in “relationship quality,” as measured by clinical surveys, Mathematica reports, “BSF did not have an effect on the relationship status of African American couples… At the time of the 15-month follow-up survey, African American couples in both research groups had similar rates of romantic involvement, co-residence, and marriage.” So apparently a happier relationship does not beget marriage, nor vice versa.

But what does Building Strong Families really build? The most salient finding measures the program in terms of the actual welfare of struggling households:

BSF also had no effect on family economic well-being. At the time of the survey, 51 percent of focal children in BSF families lived in poverty, compared with 52 percent of focal children in control group families, a difference that is not statistically significant … In addition, similar percentages of BSF and control group families were receiving TANF or food stamp benefits at follow-up, 56 and 55 percent respectively.

Translation: put a wedding ring on a poor mother, and she’s still poor. Washington’s obsession with marriage, which has continued under Obama in more subdued form, not only wastes money promoting conformity, but papers over structural deprivation, of which family instability is typically a symptom rather than a cause. Policymakers live under the fiction that government can build strong families in the absence of strong communities, in a socioeconomic hierarchy that erodes parent-child bonds and criminalizes poverty.

The real measure of family strength here is the fact that so many single parents today manage to do right by their kids despite overwhelming hardships. They survive, with or without the support of the politicians who try to reduce them to pawns in a culture war.

Ed note: The post has been changed since publication.


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