Marriage as Anti-Child-Poverty Program

Roshin Mathew
July 24, 2006

Nisa Muhammad, class facilitator and Robert Jones, partner in Campaign for Strengthening DC Families, Marriages, and Communities, in front of the East Capitol Center for Community Change Healthy Marriage class.

The glowing newlyweds met me at the door. Frozen in a blissful moment of love, the photographed couple seemed to embody the caption they embrace under: "Marriage works." I opened the door to find out how.

What Is Happening in the Nation's Capital?

I walked inside and Shalyta Barnes of the East Capitol Center for Change greeted me and told me to have a seat. I watched as the staff prepared for the arrival of the couples and their children.

Guess Who games, Uno cards, and Connect Four sets colored one side of the room, dedicated to on-site child care. A spread of vegetable and fruit platters, hot wings, wraps, and cakes invited participants to relax and have a meal on the other side. The Center wants to make it easier for couples to commit to attending all eight classes, so they provide dinner, child care, and transportation for each class. Those who attend all eight lessons will also receive $100 after completing a follow-up meeting.

The East Capitol Center for Change's Healthy Marriage classes are aimed at couples who are 18 and older; in a marriage, engaged, or seriously dating. Each class is three hours long, and this particular eight-class series was meeting on Thursday nights from 6 to 9 p.m.

Instructors Nisa Muhammad and Jamil Muhammad teach the class on behalf of Nisa's foundation, Wedded Bliss. Both organizations have teamed up with East River Family Strengthening Collaborative, DC Metro Healthy Marriage and Relationship Coalition, and the Administration for Children and Families Bureau to join the Campaign for Strengthening DC Families, Marriages, and Communities.

What is the Healthy Marriage Promotion Initiative?

Marriage classes like this one are going on all over the country with federal funding support, teaching marriage cultivation and preservation to low-income couples.

The concept of promoting strong marriages as a way to fight poverty was listed as one of the goals of welfare reform legislation—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—signed into law by former President Bill Clinton.

But it wasn't until the passage of the 2006 deficit-reduction bill that Congress went beyond words, approving a $750 million, five-year plan to encourage healthy marriage and fatherhood. The measure includes $100 million a year for marriage-related programs.

Supporters believe that marriage benefits society as a whole because married couples tend to be better off and enjoy more financial stability, and because children in two-parent families fare better by some measures than those in single-parent families.

Inside the Marriage Promotion Classroom

In the East Capitol Center for Community Change class, the students discussed why marriage is so uncommon among their friends and neighbors. One gentleman at the front of the room, holding his newborn baby, conjectured "the negative view of the black man" has reduced marriage rates. A young woman dressed all in white believes "a lack of understanding because of communication breakdowns" prevents marriage. Another woman simply said, "Fear."

Leaders in the TogetherIsBetter Campaign

The facilitators of the class acknowledged the responses and summarized the curricula for the coming weeks. The hope is that the classes will address the fear, distrust, communication breakdowns, and major changes which challenge any marriage.


  1. Why Marriage
  2. From I to We: The Sweetness of Surrender
  3. Communications
  4. Conflict Management
  5. Let's Make Love
  6. From Yours To Mine To Ours: Blending Families
  7. From This Day Forward
  8. Hot Monogamy

After going over the topics, logistics, and rules for the class it was time to play a few get-acquainted games. My favorite seemed like something pulled from The Newlyweds game on television. Each student was asked to secretly compose a love note for their significant other. The notes were then copied in someone else's handwriting and pinned up around the room.

Each participant was asked to identify which note was written for him or herself. One note enigmatically read, "No matter what, you're rib." Another sweetly cooed, "Hi baby, we've been together for a short bit, but it feels like we have come so far. Thanks for being my angel. You're my friend and my life long partner. I will always love you." Without fail each person successfully identified their lover's anonymous declaration, and I wondered what these couples are already doing to have that depth of mutual understanding.

Marriage Development Accounts

Beyond the classroom activities, participants in marriage promotion efforts in Washington, D.C. can benefit from a unique component: Marriage Development Accounts.

Through this program, if a married couple agrees to save a percentage of their earnings each month, the Capital Area Asset Building Corporation will put in another $3 for every dollar saved. The CAAB will provide this match for up to $3,000 in savings, so successful savers could finish up with a $12,000 nest egg. The account will also earn interest. The savings can be used towards purchase of a home, starting or expanding a business, or attending college or vocational school. To qualify the couple must have a combined income that is no more than $50,000.

It's hoped that the MDAs will make marriage a more economically attractive option for low-income couples.

A Partial Solution?

Barnes believes in the class and the benefits it and MDAs can provide to her community members, but she also believes "This program is only part of the solution. We need programming in education for children and adults. Children need better schools and adults need G.E.D programs."

Professor Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist from Johns Hopkins University, also feels that marriage classes can only do so much. "It is an oversimplification to think single-parent families are the cause of most of the problems for poor kids," says Cherlin.

What Do The Studies Say?

I wondered how much is known about the benefits to children in low-income families of having married parents. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute consulted over 40 articles for a literature review entitled "Marriage and the Economic Wellbeing of Families with Children." He found evidence of real benefits coming from the stability of married couples compared to cohabiting couples, and suggests that marital stability makes it easier for couples to make long-term investments in their skills and assets.

Similarly Linda Waite, a professor at the University of Chicago, argues in her book A Case for Marriage that married couples act in more health-promoting and productive ways, earn more, save more, and have better physical and mental health; however, Waite admits that the studies she refers to may be affected by bias inherent in the sample—it could be that couples who choose to marry start out with skills and qualities that lend themselves to success.

It's a chicken-and-egg problem that plagues efforts to separate out the effects of marriage from the many other factors at work.

The Urban Institute's Gregory Acs and Sandi Nelson set out to measure the marriage effect in a recent study. They started out by attributing differences in child well-being—as seen in levels of poverty, food insecurity, and high parent aggravation—to measurable differences in the following characteristics: mothers' and fathers' work effort, education, race and ethnicity, the number of children, the presence of young children, and whether the couple had been together for more than a year.

Given two hypothetical couples for whom all of these characteristics were the same, if one were married and the other not, would the children in the married family be better off? Acs and Nelson concluded that the children of the married parents would enjoy a real, though perhaps modest, advantage. According to their study, "50% to 80% of the differences in child well-being between cohabiting and married families are a result of the individual characteristics of the parents," meaning that from 20 to 50 percent of the remaining difference could be attributable directly to marriage itself, along with what the researchers termed "unobservable differences."

I bring up this study not to prove that marriage can or cannot improve the wellbeing of children; instead, it seems to demonstrate how tricky it is to pin down the intrinsic benefits of marriage.

It's also important to note that studies can only identify a marriage benefit for children when the union is between the biological parents of the child. Mary Park of the Center for Law and Social Policy reports, "In spite of their better economic circumstances on average, children in step-families face many of the same risks as children of never married or divorced parents—:children in step-families are at increased risk for experiencing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse."

(The Bush administration's marriage promotion initiative does not distinguish between promoting the marriage between biological parents or stepparents.)

Will This Initiative Help Pull People Out Of Poverty?

Not according to some, including Wendy Pollack, senior attorney from the National Center on Poverty and Law. She writes, "The marriage promotion agenda is an inappropriate use of government funds, and an ineffective antipoverty strategy."

Pollack would much rather the federal government look to welfare experiments in Minnesota where anti-poverty efforts focus on increasing families' income, access to education and training, and work supports. Such efforts have been shown to produce some of the same results that marriage promotion aims for: increased rate of marriage, greater marriage stability, less domestic violence, and improvements in child wellbeing. "You can promote marriage," Pollack says, "by first addressing poverty."

Any budget reveals the priorities of the budget's author. Right now the government seems to value a personal responsibility approach to fighting poverty. As one school of thought on fighting poverty has taken hold, another school of thought has lost currency, literally and figuratively, and so programs which helped parents with such things as the explosive, exponentially growing cost of child care, health insurance and college have been cut.

"The average annual cost of childcare is $6,000 per child," reports Tamara Draut, author of Strapped. No wonder the East Capitol Center for Community Change offers free child care during its marriage initiative classes.

Will The Marriage Initiative Work?

I can confidently say that helping the working poor meet the costs of child care and education can help them escape poverty; however I cannot say if marriage counseling classes will help couples with few resources stay married and create stable lives for their children.

On the other hand, the students at the East Capital Center for Community Change certainly seemed to want this class and the support it offered for their hopes of successful married lives. I watched ten couples sit rapt with attention as Jamil Muhammad told them that "this class will bring us together, keep us together, and keep it together." Nisa Muhammad picked up where Jamil left off, "After going through this class, you will be a light in your community." These classes do serve a purpose by giving individuals, couples, families, and communities what they want: a chance to improve their marriages or create a firm foundation for their future marriages.

As I walked out of the East Capital Center for Change, an older gentleman called out to me from the street corner.

"Hey, pretty lady. You got a boyfriend?"

"No, sir."

"Are ya married?"

"No, sir."

"Well, you should be."

"Yeah, that's what I heard."

Roshin Mathew is an Emerson Hunger Fellow working with Connect for Kids this year.