If $800 Million Can’t Even Save Marriage, Maybe We Should Stop Trying

Written by Bryce Covert

The millions the federal government has spent on programs aimed at promoting marriage and boosting marriage rates have had little discernible impact on marriage or divorce rates, according to new research from the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

Since 2001, the government will have spent about $800 million on the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) by the end of the fiscal year. That year was when the Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children & Families decided that strengthening marriage was one of the nine main priorities for the agency. Spending increased by $117 million between 2000 and 2010, including a $150 million boost as part of the 2005 Deficit Reduction Act, peaking at $142 million for 2009. HMI programs can use the money on marriage education, skills training, and mentoring programs, as well as public advertising campaigns and high school education programs.

Yet over that same time period, the country’s marriage rate continued its “precipitous decline” that started in the 1970s, falling 26 percent over the decade after 2000, the report finds. The divorce rate didn’t see much of a change.

While spending varied considerably on the state level, the same trends mostly held true. “State-level spending on HMIs did not have a significant association with state marriage rates,” the report notes. While the five states that spent the lowest cumulative amount per person on HMI programs experienced declines in their marriage rates between 2000 and 2010, the same was true for four of the five states that spent the most. Washington, D.C. was an outlier, spending $21.68 per person and experiencing a 35 percent increase in the marriage rate.

State spending did have a significant positive association with falling divorce rates, but “the top and bottom spenders share similar divorce trends,” the authors note. Among both the bottom and top spenders, three states saw increases in the divorce rate and two saw decreases. The decreases were also minuscule: they were all 7 percent or less, or in other words, a drop of less than 2 people per 1,000 who were at risk of getting divorced. Nevada was the exception with its 33 percent decrease, or 14 people per 1,000.

different review of the HMI programs that compared state spending with how many married adults lived in each state found a positive association, yet it all but disappeared when one outlier, Washington, D.C., was removed from the results.

Another independent review of a federal program called Building Strong Families, which gave more than 5,000 unwed couples with children group sessions on relationship skills coupled with support services, not only didn’t find a positive impact but found some negative ones. The program cost an average of $11,000 per couple, but three years later, it had no effect on whether the couples got married or even stayed romantically involved. Worse, the couples in the program were slightly less likely to stay together or live together than those in a control group not participating. Children also saw no more benefit than those in the control group and fathers who participated in the program were actually less likely to spend time with or financially support their children.

There’s also evidence that marriage won’t help the low-income, unmarried mothers these programs are usually aimed at. Recent research found that more than two-thirds of single mothers who married wound up divorced by the time they were ages 35 to 44. This leaves them worse off financially than they would have been if they had stayed single. And those who stay married don’t necessarily see a big benefit, as their unions tend to have “low levels of relationship quality and high rates of instability,” the author notes, and she didn’t find physical or psychological advantages for most of the adolescents born to a single mother who later married.

All of this evidence hasn’t stopped conservatives from offering up marriage as a cure for the country’s high poverty rates, though. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) recently called it “the greatest tool” for lifting people out of poverty.

What might actually help single mothers living in poverty are things conservatives may have some trouble getting on board with: increased access to contraception and family planning health care, better sex education, and a stronger safety net that includes access to health insurance, better income support, more comprehensive early childhood education, and paid sick and family leave.

This post was originally published in ThinkProgress

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez3 years ago

It's not a slam on the institution of marriage to funnel the money on programs that actually work. Finances is what breaks up most relationships. So why don't we use some of that funding to actually teach children and adults money management skills.

Elizabeth F.
Elizabeth F3 years ago


David W.
David W3 years ago


J C Bro
J C B3 years ago

is there any way that somebody can explain the old song "Money Can't Buy Me Love" to the GOP?

Wesley Struebing
Wesley Struebing3 years ago

While I agree, Jacob R. that $800 million is a ridiculous amount to have wasted, I can't figure out how spending the money to SAVE marriage is, as you say ""This fits right into the liberal socialist approach to breaking down the very moral fiber of our country, and destroying the family unit."?

That just does not compute. In spite of my vehement disagreement with almost everything you say, you are usually logically consistent. Not this time...

Spencer Young
Spencer Young3 years ago

Government should keep their noses and our tax dollars out of our marriages and other personal choices

Jacob Ross
Jacob Ross3 years ago

"If $800 Million Can’t Even Save Marriage, Maybe We Should Stop Trying"....

Figures! This fits right into the liberal socialist approach to breaking down the very moral fiber of our country, and destroying the family unit.

Then when considering the issue of unmarried mothers, the suggestion is that we, the hard working (married) taxpayers, pick up the bill to give them a more secure life - like marriage would likely give them (two heads and two incomes are better than one).

Isn't this just straight out of George Orwell's "1984" - in which children are even encouraged to rat on their parents?

I wonder if anyone at "ThinkProgress" has read the book?

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy3 years ago

$3.00 per person, maybe that should go to single moms and dads struggling with the economy and stigmas.

Pamela Tracy
Pamela Tracy3 years ago

Marriage...I was divorced and a displaced housewife who had barely reentered the work force in 1969.....I remained single all of the years I was raising my children. I was from a family where marriage meant more to me than my husband. I was willing to go to counseling, but the after effects of the Vietnam War labeled me and my husband left me with two small children. Marriages will break up and I do not believe the federal government will influence marriages either way. Both parties have to want a marriage for the marriage to last, unless both parties agree to other ways to stay married and most of those ways are not what I deem acceptable. I was happier raising my children with no man to interfere in our peace and quiet and stability....at least we were stable until they were adults...then I was hit with wrongful treatment by liars in government...I overcame the issues and now am retired. HOWEVER, I NEVER LOST THE SCARS OF BEING A DIVORCED WOMAN IN THE SIXTIES AND SEVENTIES WHEN DIVORCED WOMEN WERE CONSIDERED LOOSE EVEN IF YOU WERE NOT LOOSE BUT DECENT. CHURCHES ARE SOMETIMES TOO BIGOTED ALSO ABOUT DIVORCED WOMEN.

Anne Moran
Anne Moran3 years ago

What's $800 million, when you got 330 million people in the country ??

That's like $3.00 bucks a person...