The XX Factor

Is $7,000 Too Much for the Government To Spend on Improving a Marriage?   

Can the government afford to help this marriage?

Should the government be in the relationship seminar business? And, if so, how much should it spend to improve a marriage?

Mother Jones has a great piece today checking in on the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative, a $150-million-a-year program launched (hilariously as part of the Deficit Reduction Act) during the Bush administration to help low-income couples work on their marriages and encourage poor, unmarried parents to get hitched. After seven years, Health and Human Services is finally reporting some results and they are not good. Mother Jones notes that the program for unmarried couples “produced precisely zero impact on the quality of the couples’ relationships, rates of domestic violence, or the involvement of fathers with their children.”

Outcomes are pretty depressing across the board, and it’s tempting to frame this as religiously-motivated wasteful spending by the party whose entire thing is supposed to be about not spending wastefully. And that it is! But there is also a positive result: In the initiative’s other program, the one aimed at already-marrieds, couples actually did see a small bump up in relationship happiness after taking the government-funded course. That course costs the taxpayer $7,000 to $11,500 per couple, a number Jezebel calls “astronomical” and prompts Mother Jones to ask: “Imagine how much happier the couples would have been if they’d just been handed cash?”

Yes, money is at the root of many marital problems. And, yes, that is a lot of money for the cash-strapped federal government to spend. But why the casual dismissal of the one OK result? Presumably most of the parties chastising the Healthy Marriage Initiative or validated by its terrible outcomes are fine with, if not supportive of, middle-class and wealthy families spending that kind of cash ($150/week for a year = $7,800) on family therapy or marriage counseling. Those same parties might even argue that insurance should cover such therapy (and likely would reject a “just give ‘em cash money” approach to improving their own marriage). Then why not want the same opportunity provided to poor families? Certainly, it’s not the government’s job to push couples into a wedding. And certainly counseling is not a magic cure for a bad marriage. But for those already committed who can’t afford resources to help them stay that way, is it so terrible for the government to pay for a little of their happiness?