Health Warning on the Healthy Marriage Initiative

We all know that those who lean right are skeptical that government programs can solve socioeconomic problems. Such programs are usually well intentioned, but flops. But what if righties themselves design and implement such programs? Will their roads that are paved with good intentions now lead heaven?

Even then, no.

Case in point: the Healthy Marriage Initiative, launched in 2003 by the Bush administration. Based on studies that show marriage helps reduce poverty and boost outcomes, the $300 million program was designed to reverse the long-term decline in marriage rates among low-income Americans.

It mainly consisted of trying to educate the public on the benefits of marriage, through holding seminars in the inner city, establishing mentoring programs, teaching about marriage in high schools, public service annoucements by professional athletes, and putting up pro-marriage advertisements around town.

unmarriedIt largely fell on deaf ears. In driving up out-of-wedlock birthrates, powerful socioeconomic forces are at play. Setting up marriage education programs here and there are no match for such forces.

Since the program’s inception, out of wedlock birth rates in the U.S. have continued their relentless upward trend (see chart 10): to 72.3 percent among African Americans, 53.2 percent among Hispanics, and 28.6 percent among non-Hispanic whites (for 2011, the latest year for which figures are available).

The results are reflected in the above statistics. Plus, a couple of studies, cited here and here, found that the Healthy Marriage Initiative largely was a flop.

To be sure, government programs and other factors can have a negative effect on marriage by imposing monetary penalties thereon. It’s well established that the prospect of losing welfare benefits or health insurance through marriage, or the prospect of paying higher taxes, prompts many to not tie the knot. In fact, welfare reform in the 1990s may even have temporarily reversed the uptrend in out of wedlock birthrates – see chart 10. It would be worth researching whether welfare reform is what actually caused that reversal.

Meantime, regarding the Healthy Marriage Initiative, that old adage about government programs – that the road to h— is paved with good intentions – holds true whether they’re Democratic or Republican intentions.