6/25 UPDATE: Click here to read about Seth Eisenberg’s Congressional testimony on the proposed Fatherhood, Marriage and Families Innovation Fund and download the full submission.
“The purpose of the Innovation Fund is to provide comprehensive services to married and unmarried low-income families so that they can provide a secure and loving environment for their children. We fully expect that relationship skills programs for couples will be part of the mix of programs proposed by state governments under the Innovation Fund.”
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
By Seth Eisenberg
For years, I watched from a front row seat as the concept of relationship and marriage education evolved from a passionate quest for answers and solutions to the epidemic of family breakdown that rapidly emerged in the final decades of the 20th century.
While therapists, counselors, psychologists and other mental health professionals were beginning to address families as systems and others continued to focus on routinely ineffective individual treatment plans for men and women facing marital distress, early pathfinders recognized that the root cause of family fragmentation could and should be addressed primarily through education.
From experiences with couples and families across the country, these pathfinders discovered that the epidemic of family breakdown that was leading to increased poverty, homelessness, crime, incarceration, academic failures, decreased productivity, negative health consequences, and multi-generational challenges to greater numbers of distressed neighborhoods was more likely to be prevented through skills training than traditional therapeutic approaches. The pioneers of the field of marriage and relationship education understood that the challenge wasn’t that anything or anyone was broken, defective, or that the institution of marriage itself was less relevant; the underlying cause of marital and family breakdown – in the far majority of cases – was rooted in a lack of practical, learnable skills for sustaining relationships based on love and intimacy.
In the late 1970s, American University in Washington, D.C. invited Lori Heyman Gordon, a Northern Virginia marriage and family therapist well known for her innovative approaches to helping couples navigate marital distress, to put the skills she’d learned and developed into a training program for future counselors. PAIRS, the Practical Application of Intimate Relationship Skills program, was borne out of that invitation and a commitment to helping couples and through them, their children, on behalf of what became the nonprofit PAIRS Foundation’s longstanding mission to create a safer, saner, more loving world.
More than a quarter century later, that approach is widely recognized as an effective strategy for preventing divorce and the long-term implications of family breakdown. As a result of $750 million in funding provided through competitive five-year federal grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, that began in 2006 to conduct Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Demonstration projects, programs have helped thousands of couples strengthen marriages, families, the well-being of children, and provide a foundation for revitalizing communities.
Statements issued this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in response to questions from Congressman Kendrick Meek (FL-17), a member of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income Security and Family Support, are a validation of the lifetime of passion and work of the pioneers who regularly overcame the scorn of colleagues who belittled their faith in educational approaches that empowered participants through skills training as opposed to costly, therapeutic models that attempted to diagnose and treat the symptoms of marital discord through ongoing weekly counseling sessions that too often failed to prevent divorce.
In response to Congressman Meek’s questions to David Hansel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration said it’s time to build on these experiences in a way that integrates relationship and marriage education more fully into statewide efforts to prevent poverty and address the symptoms of marital and family breakdown. In the current budget proposal, the Administration has requested $500 million in funding from Congress to establish a Fatherhood, Marriage, and Families Innovation Fund.
Below are the questions raised by Congressman Meek and the answers provided by Marion Mitchell on behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services:
Congressman Kendrick Meek: I have heard directly from constituents, school and community leaders that the Healthy Marriage programs are having a positive, lasting impact in Miami-Dade County and other areas throughout Florida, including with the formerly homeless, low-income, and others struggling to avoid or lift themselves out of poverty. The results of programs provided to thousands of couples, singles and teenagers in South Florida since our community received a five-year Healthy Marriage grant in 2006 show this approach has merit and value. I understand that the sole source of federal funding for these services is the Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grant program. Will the proposed Fatherhood, Marriage, and Families Innovation Fund (FMFIF) ensure that these successful programs and approaches continue receiving federal support?
Marion Mitchell (HHS): Through the Innovation Fund, the Administration seeks to build on the experience of community-based efforts across the country to move to the next phase of service delivery – creating a network of community-based programs working in partnership with states to provide comprehensive services to parents at a broader scale than an individual program can provide alone. The Fund aims to break down program silos, and reduce service fragmentation to create a more coordinated and comprehensive approach to serving low-income parents. The Administration expects that the strongest state applications will be those that actively partner with community based organizations including those which are existing healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood grantees.
Kendrick Meek: What stands out for me about the Healthy Marriage work I have seen in my community are the preventative benefits – such as preventing poverty by helping parents learn to strengthen their families and marriages, reducing conflict, helping children get the parental support they need to succeed and stay in school, and providing a foundation for revitalizing neighborhoods. Is the goal of the FMFIF to be preventative, such as the Healthy Marriage projects have been, or is it more focused on addressing negative outcomes that have already taken place from family fragmentation?
Marion Mitchell (HHS): The goal of the Innovation Fund is both to prevent and address negative outcomes. As we have learned, it is important to address both situations since children may live with both or only one parent. By improving the quality of fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives, the Innovation Fund can improve children’s behavior and school outcomes. At the same time, by serving fathers who do not live with their children, the Innovation Fund will be able to increase the number of fathers who are working, paying child support, and engaging with their children which will reduce the child’s need for public assistance.
The Administration expects to fund programs that address both through such activities as: domestic violence prevention programs; relationship skill-building; co-parenting services; conflict resolution; earning supplements; job training and other employment services; and interventions with families at-risk for involvement in the child welfare system.
Kendrick Meek: A report published by Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) in April considered the impact of fatherhood programs that focus on disadvantaged non-custodial fathers versus relationship skills programs for couples who are still together. I understand that findings show the fatherhood programs have demonstrated some efficacy increasing child support payments, while relationship skills programs for couples who are together have shown a much broader range of benefits, including improving the quality of the couples’ relationship, co-parenting skills, fathers’ engagement in parenting and children’s well-being. How do these findings influence the proposal for FMFIF to assure we’re building on what delivers the greatest opportunity to improve the lives of our children?
Marion Mitchell (HHS): The April MDRC study you reference in your question states “To continue to improve policies and programs, both responsible fatherhood and couples-based family strengthening programs should be embedded in a rigorous research agenda that addresses outstanding questions for various groups of families.” The reason the authors of the MDRC study discussed both types of interventions in their report is because they think that both interventions are important for low-income children and should not be seen as mutually exclusive, but rather as interconnected and complementary. FMFIF supports the approach recommended in the MDRC study.
The purpose of the Innovation Fund is to provide comprehensive services to married and unmarried low-income families so that they can provide a secure and loving environment for their children. We fully expect that relationship skills programs for couples will be part of the mix of programs proposed by state governments under the Innovation Fund. We also recognize, however, that many children live with their mother and their father lives elsewhere. In these families, it is important that fathers financially support their children. Paying child support increases the economic well-being of children and reduces their families’ need for welfare and other publicly provided benefits. Sometimes fathers are not able to pay their child support because they are not employed. In these circumstances, providing employment-oriented services may help fathers meet their financial responsibilities toward their children. Programs that provide these types of services have shown promise for increasing the amount of child support paid, as the MDRC report notes. State governments applying for funding through the Innovation Fund could propose these programs as well programs that focus on relationship skills programs for couples.
The Innovation Fund also proposes rigorous evaluation of all programs funded under this initiative, including responsible fatherhood and relationship skills programs. While there is some rigorous evaluation of these program areas, there is a great deal to learn about the mix of services that works for different types of families and what impact they have on child well-being.
The Innovation Fund, with its emphasis on comprehensive services and rigorous evaluation, will build upon existing research and deliver the greatest opportunity to improve the lives of low-income children.
 Knox, Virginia, Philip Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Elana Bildner. “Policies that Strengthen Fatherhood and Family Relationships: What Do We Know and What Do We Need to Know?” New York: Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation. March 2010.
Seth Eisenberg is President and CEO of PAIRS Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest and leading providers of relationship skills programs designed to strengthen marriages, families, and improve the well-being of children. He is the youngest son of PAIRS Founder Lori Gordon.