By Zach Schepis
Photo courtesy of kevin dooley.
Nobody can deny the steadily growing national divorce rates of recent decades, nor can anyone account for exactly why they occur. Despite a nearly $600 million government budget funded toward the promotion of healthy marriage, divorce remains as prevalent as ever.
A new study suggests that all of the education, counseling, and advertising that made up the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) might very well have all been for naught.
The National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University discovered that even when spending reached its apex ($142 million in 2009), marriages still declined and divorce rates remained more or less the same.
Unsurprisingly, the five states that spent the least toward HMI all experienced declines in marriage rates. However, so too did four out of the five states that spent the most.
Why could this be?
Another study from the University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen explores the effects that the US economy has had on divorce rates. While he is among many other scholars seeking a reasonable explanation for such a spike, Cohen differs in his efforts to establish a parallel between separation and the financial well-being of families in America.
His research depicts divorce rates taking a dive after the economy was hit in 2007, which seems to suggest that couples are finding newfound strength in times of crisis.
There is always the flip side of the coin, however: couples could be divorcing less in times of economic hardship simply because they cannot afford to do so.
Marriage has often been cherished as a solution to poverty. Congress passed The Welfare Reform Law in 1996 allowing states to allocate welfare funds to “reducing non-marital pregnancies and promoting two-parent families.” The belief was that a two-income household would result in fewer problems for children raised in those homes. But new research is revealing that the legislation has not been an effective solution to the problem.
Kristi Williams, an associate professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, believes this program has failed to solve the problem. Her research was published Jan. 6 by the Council on Contemporary Families and featured as part of their in-depth coverage concerning the War on Poverty.
“Personally, I question the premise of devising public policy with the aim of encouraging marriage,” Williams tells BTR. “There is no evidence that helping low income single mothers marry can accomplish that goal and there is evidence that marriage carries risks for single mothers and their children.”
According to a nationally representative study conducted by Williams that surveyed 7,000 women, 64 percent of single mothers who had been married were later divorced by the time they reached ages between 35-44.
Furthermore, “single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.”
For Williams, the solution to climbing divorce rates, and even more widespread issues such as poverty, can be addressed through focusing more on children.
“It may very well be that giving children a better start throughout their lives, including the chance to earn a decent living when they mature, will in the long run increase marriage rates in low income communities,” she explains. “This will be made possible through reducing the entrenched poverty that is a barrier to marriage.”
Mindy Scott, a Ph.D. Senior Research Scientist at Child Trends, also believes that we must begin with children if we wish to better instill ideals of what constitutes “healthy” relationships. Scott and her colleagues have focused extensively on the quality, structure, and behavior of marital relationships to help conceive welfare reform that builds and supports healthy relationships.
“In focus groups conducted with African American teens in Washington DC, teens showed that they know what a healthy teen relationship should look like,” Scott tells BTR. “They prioritized respect, honesty, fidelity, good communication, and the absence of violence.”
While teens had no problem identifying the constituents of healthy relationships, disconnect still remained between their conceptions and personal experiences.
“Many of these same teens expressed pessimism about their chances of experiencing these types of relationships themselves,” says Scott. “Nor did they have many adult role models who demonstrated these types of relationships.”
Williams doesn’t believe that these role models should be a top priority. All of these efforts, she asserts, need to be redirected from encouraging these kinds of relationships to encouraging children and young adults to lead the best lives that they can.
“Increasing college affordability, college readiness, and opportunities for employment in a job with a living wage would provide women with an alternative pathway to adulthood besides early motherhood,” she tells BTR.
This doesn’t mean that happy and healthy relationships aren’t possible—even for the young and innocent. While divorce might continue to rear its ugly head, it’s important to remember that there’s a reason why we take the chance to begin with.
“Our research on young adults found that the vast majority of young adults who were married, cohabiting, and in exclusive dating relationships reported that they and their partner had a lot of love for one another,” says Scott.
“This supports past research that most young adults view love, commitment, and fidelity as very important elements for a successful relationship.”