Book Review — Proposing Prosperity: Marriage Education Policy and Inequality in America

by Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-line First: While I value the contribution Jennifer Randles’ book makes to the field, I have some beefs with her analysis of federal policy efforts to promote relationship education. She argues that relationship education is the wrong approach because healthy relationships and marriages are a product of social and economic circumstances that provide a nurturing environment in which relationships can flourish. She asserts an economic threshold below which romantic relationship aspirations are essentially hopeless. Yes, we need to work to improve the social and economic ecology that nurtures romantic relationships, that makes it easier for love to thrive. But ultimately, her argument inadvertently minimizes the dignity of those she sincerely hopes to help. As she documents, participants in the program she studied in-depth overwhelmingly enjoyed and appreciated the program for the message of hope it delivered, despite their difficult circumstances. They valued the knowledge and skills that gave them a sense of agency to achieve their relationship aspirations, even knowing the obstacles ahead. Randles worries that hope is false and insensitive. I disagree. 

When it was published last year, I devoured Dr. Jennifer Randles’ recent book, Proposing Prosperity.[1] It is an in-depth analysis of federal policy efforts to promote relationship education. It was a roller-coaster ride for me through this well-written book. I found myself alternatively admiring her attempts at fairness, frustrated with her analytical lens, appreciating her ethnographic insight, disputing a few of her facts (but learning some new ones), being stimulated by worthy critiques, but disagreeing with some key conclusions.

Some time has passed since my initial reading and the dizziness of that ride has dissipated. I think I can render a more stable judgement now. Randles deserves praise for her thorough investigation of this new policy initiative. And even though I differed with much of her analysis, she did her homework. Overall, while I value her contribution to the field, I think her analysis is dated and off target.

In fairness, it is important to point out that Randles was observing and analyzing a policy initiative in its earliest years. When I found myself questioning some of her observations, I had to remind myself that these observations occurred almost a decade earlier, in the embryonic years of the policy initiative. For instance, Randles observes that these early RE programs and instructors were sending messages (direct and indirect) that a formal marriage would create economic stability and prosperity for families and that poverty was a direct consequence of “bad [relationship] choices and negative interpersonal dynamics” (p. 203). Randles criticizes instructors and staff whom she observed “whose pro-marriage moral beliefs … and simplistic interpretations of social scientific evidence motivated them to teach that marriage prevents poverty” (p. 109). She argues that “teaching couples that marriage always and directly produces emotional and financial benefits is disingenuous and does a disservice to couples and their children” (p. 203).

Randles’ characterization of the policy, however, certainly is not the message that I have absorbed over time. I have watched program developers and instructors learning, adapting, and improving their curricula and programs to better serve the distinctive life circumstances of those who eagerly enrolled in their programs. I spoke directly with the director of the program that Randles observed in depth and she described how steep the learning curve was in the early years. She believes that services got better over the decade they were supported by federal dollars.

Randles uses early rhetoric about moving fragile families out of poverty as the ultimate rationale for the policy initiative and the primary measure by which the initiative’s success should be evaluated. By that standard, this policy initiative cannot yet be labeled a success. My own perspective is that these relationship education programs are just the newest part of a much larger social policy portfolio trying to help disadvantaged families climb out of their impoverished circumstances. By themselves, relationship education programs could never be a panacea for poverty, even if they were available in larger numbers to greater proportions of lower income individuals and couples.

It is possible that early messages of some programs and instructors were insensitive to the unique stresses faced by lower income couples. So, I need to cut Randles some slack; her observations of off-key messages may have been more common in the early years of the policy initiative. All government-funded relationship education programs that I know of now regularly acknowledge the challenging stresses participants face day to day, while providing them relational skills to try to isolate those stresses from their relationships, as well as connecting participants to other needed services.

Though better informed than critics before her,[2] I still think Randles’ primary critique of federal efforts to promote relationship education services for disadvantaged individuals and couples misses the mark. Like previous critics, she believes that the policy is misguided, not just insensitive. She asserts that healthy relationships and marriages are a direct product of social and economic circumstances that provide a nurturing environment in which relationships can flourish. Improve the environment – reduce the toxins – and families in all forms will be more stable. She argues that “a policy focused on supporting healthy marriages should take into account how intimate inequalities lead to curtailed commitments for disadvantaged families” (p. 104) and that effective policy “will reflect the fundamental sociological premise that love and commitment thrive most within the context of social and economic opportunity” (p. 216).

I have several beefs with Randles’ (and others’) argument. First, even her own data tended to contradict her analysis. She acknowledges that couples felt that they benefitted from the program, but she asserts that it was not the curriculum that was the source of that benefit. Rather, “meeting in groups with other couples who shared similar socioeconomic and family circumstances, enabled parents to understand that many of the challenges they faced were not the result of personal shortcomings or interpersonal conflicts, but the inherent difficulties of trying to keep a family together while poor. … [T]he program influenced the emotional affect around which couples coped with their mutual perpetual problems, including poverty” (pp. 174–175). So, by her analysis, group dynamics were instructive and helpful even if the curriculum content was deficient. And in my view, programs, curricula, and pedagogy have evolved and improved since Randles conducted her observations.

Moreover, more experienced progressive policy wonks then either Randles or I are now arguing that relationship instability results from both economic dislocation and cultural forces that shape our intimate behavior. Making progress will require innovative policies attacking the problems from many different angles.[3] It’s not an either/or problem but a both/and problem.

My biggest concern, however, with Randles’ analysis is that it inadvertently but ultimately minimizes the dignity of those she sincerely hopes to help. She asserts an economic threshold below which romantic relationship aspirations are hopeless. She may be right when she argues that “no love or commitment is great enough to convert poverty into prosperity” (p. 135), which is the standard she uses to evaluate the merits of public policy support for relationship education. But it is not the sole standard, and not the one that participants use to assess the value of relationship education. As she documents, participants in the program she studied in-depth overwhelmingly enjoyed and appreciated the program for the message of hope it delivered, despite their difficult circumstances. They valued the knowledge and skills that gave them a sense of agency to achieve their relationship aspirations, even knowing the obstacles ahead.

Randles worries that hope is false and insensitive. She asserts that healthy relationship skills cannot be taught and implemented in a way that overcomes the stresses of poverty that corrode relationships. Perhaps adopting a social scientist’s Hippocratic Oath, Randles worries that teaching relationship skills to disadvantaged couples will harm them by communicating a false sense of empowerment about the future of their relationship, that it promotes “the mistaken idea that relationship and economic success depend on individual ability” (p. 208). Yes, sensitivity and skill are needed to deliver relationship education to disadvantaged participants (and I think current relationship educators are doing a good job of this). But to tell poor couples that their family aspirations must wait until we can fix the social and economic inequalities that exist in our complex society and that they have no control over the fate of their most intimate hopes are fatalistic messages that surely harm couples’ fundamental sense of agency, dignity, and hope (not to mention it overlooks the reality that some disadvantaged couples achieve healthy and stable relationships and some advantaged couples do not).

An analogy to health policy is useful here. We know that impoverished circumstances make it much more likely the poor will become overweight.[4] As a society, we must constantly struggle to overcome the inequalities that poverty present. While doing so, however, we should not withhold knowledge and skills about healthy eating and lifestyles. We should treat the poor as resourceful people rather than passive pawns. Similarly, I trust the science of relationships can help many people and even be most helpful to those who struggle daily with the external stresses of poverty. I don’t think it is a stretch here to invoke the language of civil rights – that all people deserve an education about matters that are so crucial to human flourishing.

Support for educational efforts to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages and relationships can still acknowledge that we have a long learning curve to make these services most effective. We can be constructive critics of imperfect policy and call for needed innovation but still reinforce the value of those efforts. And I think Randles’ book can stimulate better efforts. In the end, she attempts to do just that, waffling on calling for the termination of this policy initiative. She admits that “teaching people findings of relationship and marital research is a valid policy goal” (pp. 214–215), but that programs should be more “sociologically informed” (p. 215). That is, they should emphasize the external challenges poorer couples face, “validating couples’ experiences with interpersonal difficulties that are exacerbated by economic distress,” and that “many of their relationship problems are socially patterned and, therefore, less likely to [be] solved by faulting their partners, breaking up, or moving on to another person with whom they are likely to experience similar challenges” (p. 215). I’m not convinced that her curriculum change proposal will actually help much, but I welcome constructive suggestions like this as we strive to help disadvantaged individuals and couples achieve their family aspirations.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Randles, J. M. (2017). Proposing prosperity? Marriage education policy and inequality in America New York: Columbia University.

[2] Cahn, N., & Carbone, J. (2010). Red families v. blue families: Legal polarization and the creation of culture. New York: Oxford University; Heath, M. (2012). One marriage under God: The campaign to promote marriage in America. New York University; Huston, T. L., & Melz, H. (2004). The case for (promoting) marriage: The devil is in the details. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 943–948; Lee, G. R. (2015). The limits of marriage: Why getting everyone married won’t solve all our problems. Lanham, MD: Lexington; Trail, T. E., & Karney, B. R. (2012). What’s (not) wrong with low-income marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 413–427.

[3] Cherlin, A. J. (2014). Labor’s love lost: The rise and fall of working-class family in America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation; Sawhill, I. V. (2014). Generation unbound: Drifting into sex and parenthood without marriage. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution.

[4] Krishna, A., Razak, F., Lebel, A., Smith, G. D., & Subramanian, S. V. (2015). Trends in group inequalities and interindividual inequalities in BMI in the United States, 1993–2012. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 101, 598–605.