MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Valentine's Day is tomorrow and that means that millions of American men and women are making plans to please their romantic partners, at least in parts of the country where they are not buried under snow and ice. But what you might not know is that, for some years now, the federal government has been involved, not so much in romance, but in teaching families so-called relationship skills.
Advocates of these programs who include people on both the left and the right believe that teaching low-income couples relationship skills will lead to more family stability, and that in turn will lead to less poverty and, at the very least, better outcomes for kids. The programs are called Family Expectations. But critics are taking a new look at these programs, and say that the millions spent on Family Expectations actually don't do any good. And that couples who participate are no more likely to remain together than those that don't.
All this year, in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the war on poverty, we've been talking about approaches to fighting poverty so that's one reason we wanted to hear more about this. So we called Tom Bartlett. He wrote about the program in an article called "The Great Mom and Dad Experiment" for The Chronicle of Higher Education. He's with us now. Tom Bartlett, welcome. Thanks for joining us.
TOM BARTLETT: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Also with us, Ron Haskins. He serves on the board of Family Expectations and is codirector of the Brookings Institution Center on Children and Families. He's had a long interest in the role of family breakdown in perpetuating poverty. And he's with us now also. Ron Haskins, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us once again.
RON HASKINS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So, Tom Bartlett, can you just briefly describe how the Family Expectations programs works? Who participates?
BARTLETT: Well, so the couples that participate are couples who earn less than 200 percent of the poverty threshold so it's poor couples. And in this - and Family Expectations is a program that's based in Oklahoma City, but they are similar programs around the country. And they come - and in Oklahoma City, for example, they go through a 13-week program, in which, as you said in your intro, they learn relationship skills, sort of how to be better partners so they can be better parents - is sort of the idea behind it.
MARTIN: And what exactly do they do? People meet, like, meet once a week or twice a week or what do they do?
BARTLETT: They meet once a week. And they also have individual sessions with employees of the program where they can sort of work on some individual problems. But they meet for, you know, an extended class. They have dinner. The dinner is provided as part of the program. And they learn skills like, you know, how to have better arguments and how to listen to your partner and not to jump in and how to, you know, remain calm in the midst of an argument. And...
MARTIN: It's the kind of thing that a middle-class couple might get in couples counseling.
BARTLETT: Absolutely. And that's sort of where this idea started from. I mean, this is very similar to what you might get in counseling. But, you know, these are people that probably wouldn't normally have the funds to sort of seek out and to pay for a counselor.
MARTIN: And what occasions your reporting is that the government did an assessment of the program in 2012, and what did they find?
BARTLETT: So they found - I mean, according to the report, that these programs, for the most part, just didn't succeed. The researcher who actually headed up this report told me that he found the results pretty discouraging. And so it was a three-year review, and they really found across the board that these programs didn't - really didn't help in the ways that they thought it would help. It didn't seem to really help people, for the most, part stay together. It didn't - fathers didn't spend more time with their children. They just didn't see the outcomes that they wanted to see. And sort of looks pretty dismal overall.
MARTIN: Ron Haskins, as we mentioned, you've been involved on the board of the program for about 10 years. You were a senior advisor on welfare issues under President George W. Bush. And as we mentioned, you've had a long-standing interest in this whole question, you know, of family stability. And you have a strong view that, you know - that family breakdown is a major kind of driver of enduring poverty. How do you respond to this information?
HASKINS: I think it's generally correct. First, I am not surprised. Many programs, Head Start, for example, which has been in existence for half a century - the evaluations have not been very good either. And many new programs, the evaluations in the beginning are not very good. So I think it's generally correct.
I do think that there have been - maybe the outcomes are little bit more positive than he suggested, especially for the work with couples who are already married and trying to preserve their marriages and improve the quality of their marriages. And there's a fairly large literature on middle-class parents that shows that they do benefit from these programs both in terms of improving the quality of the relationship and in sustaining their marriages. So it's theoretically possible, and even - there's evidence that it works with middle-class families. So if we keep trying, maybe it will work with low-income families.
HASKINS: Let me know - one thing that I think is really important and that is that for many of these programs, the parents didn't come. So the attendance was abysmal. And if the parents don't come, then they would not be expected to - you know, to profit from the curriculum. But I think - I want to make it clear, I think his generalizations about the programs, they are discouraging. But I think there's a possibility that we could improve them in time.
MARTIN: Well, is the argument - so, Ron, are you saying that you think the programs, if given more time, will work or if people take it more seriously it will work? I guess what I'm asking you is, is your view the problem is not with the concept, but with the way people are embracing it?
HASKINS: The problem is not with the concept. And what I think we should do now is we should focus on Oklahoma program, which at 15 months in the first evaluation produced a whole range of outcomes, exactly what we were looking for. If those had been sustained, then there would be room for encouragement.
The other sites did not have those kind of impacts and even one site had some negative impacts. But I think if we study what's going on in Oklahoma and try to improve it, that over a period of time, we may be able to improve the program. I'm not suggesting we expand them. I don't think the research justifies that, but I do think if we keep working on this, we may be able to find ways to help these young couples stay together.
MARTIN: Well, Ron, can I ask you something about that, though? You said that this works for middle-class couples. I mean, part of what Tom's reporting - forgive me if I'm cornering you here, Tom - but part of Tom's reporting suggests or what the critics are suggesting is that the reason these things work for middle-class people is that it's not that the programs work for middle class people, it's being middle class that's what works for middle-class people.
They don't - they just don't have the same stressors that poorer couples and families have, and that they suggest that that money would be better spent. I mean, these programs are not cheap. It costs an average of $11,000 per couple - that you might be better off just giving the people the money so that they're not as stressed by their poverty. Ron, what do you say to that?
HASKINS: I'd certainly be willing to try that in an experiment to see if you give people money directly. But we do give a lot of money to these people. We spend a trillion dollars a year between the federal government and states on these tested programs. And many of the mothers, especially are on the TANF cash program.
They might get Earned Income Tax Credit, they may get housing and so forth. So we do already give a lot of money to these families. But I think there is something to this argument. Life is easier for middle-class families because they have more resources. There's no question about that. But that doesn't mean that poor families cannot learn to do the kind of things that will really help them, and especially will help them get out of poverty. And there's no better way to do that. Well, maybe there is a better way, but a good way to do it is through marriage.
MARTIN: Well, that's kind of what we're discussing here. That's the debate, isn't it? But writer - I mean, Tom Bartlett, what about that? And if you're just joining us, we are talking about Family Expectations. My guests are writer Tom Bartlett of The Chronicle of Higher Education who just did a big report on these programs, which are designed to help poor parents stay together. The argument is that family stability - more family stability will provide something of a buffering, kind of - a way to kind of work against poverty by keeping families together. So, Tom Bartlett, let me just ask you this.
What's so terrible? I mean, let's just set the cost aside, you know. What's so terrible? Is there something harmful about these programs? You know, what's so terrible about asking people to, you know, learn - helping people learn communication skills who might never have been exposed to them before or encouraging couples, you know, not to, for example, hit each other when they're mad? What's so terrible?
BARTLETT: Oh, I don't think there's anything necessarily so terrible about that. I mean, one of the things that Ron said, which is true is that in 15 months when they evaluated this Oklahoma program, they were seeing some positive outcomes. But by 36 months, those positive outcomes had almost entirely gone away. And so they don't seem to be long-lasting. I mean, there's nothing sort of wrong in theory, but at a certain point, you sort of have to say have we tried this? We've given this a shot. We've spent not just millions, but hundreds of millions of dollars on this.
Money that's coming from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund that could be spent in other ways. Is this a wise use of our resources if the data, as everyone I think for the most part agrees, really shows that it's not working? There's sort of an opportunity cost there. I mean, we could be spending this money elsewhere. So, I mean, there's nothing - this is one of these things that sounds - that I think, you know, everyone has the best intentions. And when you meet the couples as I did and when you talk to the instructors, it's hard - I mean, you want them to succeed. You want this to work. It sounds so great. The numbers just don't show that it's working. And so at what point do you pull the plug?
MARTIN: Tom, can I just ask you, though - there was one section - Ron alluded to this - where there seemed to be negative outcomes. Anybody know why?
BARTLETT: I mean, I don't think we know why. But, I mean, that - it's actually - we see some negative outcomes really not just at one site, but multiple sites including Oklahoma, which is sort of the shining example, you know. And I don't think anyone knows exactly why. But within that group in Oklahoma, fathers who went through the program actually spent less time with their children than the group that they looked at that didn't go through the program. So I don't know why that is, but it may suggest that it's not having the affect that researchers would hope.
MARTIN: Ron Haskins, any idea why? I mean, the one location - the locations where there have been actually negative outcomes, any theory as to why?
HASKINS: I don't know exactly why they had negative outcomes. I think the most plausible thing is that when you sit down with these couples and they - many of them have trouble - and you bring that into the open, and especially if they meet in groups and they see other couples and it could make them wish that their relationship was better as the other couples they see that their partner was more reasonable and so forth. So that could stimulate some problems.
Let me - Michel, let me say I don't agree that you abandon something after it doesn't work. We have many, many, many intervention programs that do not work the first time out. It's very difficult to get intervention programs to work. So you shouldn't give up, but you shouldn't expand them. You can cut back on the spending. I agree that we probably have spent too much money on this and we ought to cut back on the programs.
But programs like Oklahoma, we should continue, study them more carefully, try new things and try to develop something because the potential benefits of a program that could actually promote healthy marriages among low-income families would have dramatic effects. You've emphasized poverty, but also on mobility and on their children.
MARTIN: OK. We have...
HASKINS: Kids are way better off if they have two parents.
MARTIN: All right, we have to leave it there for now. Ron Haskins is on the board of Family Expectations. He's codirector of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. He was with us on the line from his home office in Rockville, Maryland where we are under snow and ice. Tom Bartlett is a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. And he was kind enough to join us from member station KUT in Austin. Thank you both so much for joining us.
BARTLETT: Thanks very much.
HASKINS: Glad to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.