Do Premarital Education Promotion Policies Work?

Tiffany L. Clyde and Alan J. Hawkins

The Bottom-line (at the Top). 10 states have adopted policies that promote premarital education by discounting the cost of a marriage license for those who participate. Are these policies working? A recent study suggests that well-implemented policies appear to be having a small effect on divorce rates, perhaps preventing nearly 15,000 divorces. But few states have done a good job of implementing these policies.

Divorce has been a popular topic in research for decades. Numerous studies have documented the greater risks of negative outcomes for individuals and families associated with divorce. In addition, studies have estimated the public costs of divorce and family instability on communities, states, and the nation from $33 billion to $112 billion per year.[1] Of course, the economic cost for the couple directly involved is high too, with estimates between $15,000 and $20,000.[2] Not surprisingly, some states have tried to address this problem by taking a preventative approach: passing legislation that promotes participation in premarital education and counseling.

Currently, 10 states have implemented some form of premarital education/counseling promotion policies: Florida (1998), Oklahoma (1999), Maryland (2001), Minnesota (2001), Tennessee (2002), Georgia (2004), South Carolina (2006), Texas (2007), West Virginia (2012), and Utah (2018). (Utah is still working on implementing the policy change.) These policies encourage engaged couples to participate in premarital education or counseling prior to marriage to learn skills and gain knowledge necessary to maintain a healthy marriage and ultimately help prevent unnecessary divorce.

 

While there are slight variations among the policies, they have much in common. These policies often provide incentives to invest in premarital education (typically in the form of substantial marriage license discounts), state a specific number of educational hours required, outline topics or content to be covered in formal premarital education or counseling, and specify who can provide such services (including religious ministrants).

Previous research has documented the effects of participating in premarital education on marital quality and stability,[3] but no policy research has documented whether the implementation of premarital education promotion policies have actually decreased the divorce rate in the implementing states. So, we conducted a study to examine just that.[4]

Before we get to the results of our impact study, however, it is important to investigate how effectively premarital education promotion policies have been implemented. Passing legislation without effective implementation—not an uncommon phenomenon—is unlikely to achieve the intended effects. Here are the results of our implementation study. Overall, the story of implementation of these policies is not ideal. Our investigation[5] revealed that:

  • While 6-of-10 states (FL, MD, TN, TX, WV, and UT) outlined a formal entity responsible for oversight and implementation, oversight has been lacking. And, if there was formal oversight, it was usually short-lived. For instance, Texas implemented the policy quite well at first but then funding ended after about three years. Several states appointed formal responsibilities for developing an online list of providers, but our investigation suggested that some of those sites are out of date or unavailable. Overall, the bills were passed but they have not been well implemented.[6]
  • The story in Utah may be more There the Utah Marriage Commission is charged with oversight; this group is currently working hard to develop and implement their program this year. (Read more about Utah’s efforts here).

Although these implementation-study findings did not make us optimistic that the promotion policies were actually reducing divorce rates, we pressed on with our impact analyses.[7] Here is what we found:

  • Our first set of analyses revealed that simply having a policy (compared to states without the policy) did not reduce the divorce rate.
  • However, our follow-up analyses were more encouraging, suggesting that how well a policy was implemented was associated with a reduction in the divorce rate.[8] Some states were doing a little better at implementation than others and better-implemented policies were associated with a 0.5% reduction in the divorce rate. So, Texas, which implemented the policy the best (for a few years), saw a 1.5% reduction in the divorce rate in their state in that can be attributed to the effects of the policy change. While this may seem like a small effect, note that the divorce-reduction effect is measured for all marriages, including those that began before the premarital education policies were implemented. In other words, most marriages measured by the divorce rate could not be “treated” because the policy was not in place when they married. So, the divorce-reduction effect of the policy is likely underestimated. It probably is significantly larger among the “treated” couples, those who married after the implementation of the [9]
  • Building off these analyses, we were able to calculate the number of divorces prevented per year due to the premarital education promotion policy in implementing states. We calculated that there were 14,785 fewer divorces in 2016 due to the policies.
  • Given that the economic cost for the couple involved may be $15,000 to $20,000, this amounts to personal fiscal savings in 2016 that totals at least $221,775,000. Also, taking a figure of about $18,000 as the public costs of a divorce,[10] this adds up to a public saving of $266,130,000. These likely are conservative estimates.

Our research suggests that divorce rates may be sensitive to effectively implemented premarital education promotion policies. Here are some implications of our research:

  • More states should consider supporting similar legislation to promote premarital education. Clearly, however, policymakers should focus greater attention on effective implementation.
  • For states that have already implemented such policies, additional efforts should be made to increase effectiveness to reap the potential benefits of the policy. These efforts could include assigning an entity responsible for the oversight and implementation of the policy, including advertising and increasing awareness, approving curriculum, and creating and maintaining a roster of qualified providers. In addition, implementing states should allocate appropriate funding to help with the implementation and evaluation of the policies. (For example, Utah’s legislation specifies that $20 of marriage license fees for those who do not participate in premarital education go to the Utah Marriage Commission to support these oversight efforts.)

We hope to see more states effectively implement these policies so that more couples, families, and communities reap the rewards of greater family stability.

 

This is a revised version of a blog that first appeared on the Institute for Family Studies blog, April 29, 2019: https://ifstudies.org/blog/do-premarital-education-promotion-policies-work.

 

Endnotes:

[1] Scafidi, B. (2008). The taxpayer costs of divorce and unwed childbearing. Institute for American Values, 12, 13. Schramm, D. G. (2006). Individual and social costs of divorce in Utah. Journal of Family and Economic Issues27, 133-151. See also: Schramm, D. G., Harris, S. M., Whiting, J., Hawkins, A. J., Brown, M., & Porter, R. (2013). Economic costs and policy implications associated with divorce: Texas as a case study. Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, 54, 1-24.

[2] Michon, K. (n.d.) How much will my divorce cost and how long will it take? Retrieved on April 4, 2018 from https://www.nolo.com/legal-encyclopedia/ctp/cost-of-divorce.html; Schramm, D. G. (2006). Individual and social costs of divorce in Utah. Journal of Family and Economic Issues27, 133-151.

[3] Fawcett, E. B., Hawkins, A. J., Blanchard, V. L., & Carroll, J. S. (2010). Do premarital education programs really work? A meta‐analytic study. Family Relations59, 232-239; Stanley, S. M., Amato, P. R., Johnson, C. A., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Premarital education, marital quality, and marital stability: Findings from a large, random household survey. Journal of Family Psychology20, 117-126.

[4] The study has not been published yet.

[5] We employed a combination of methods to document the implementation of the policies in each state, including reviewing the legislative documents, reviewing archival records, as well as interviewing academics and key persons associated with the bill.

[6] We learned that there were informal efforts to encourage couples to take advantage of the new policies, especially from churches. But these were much harder to document.

[7] We used difference-in-difference estimation using non-implementing states as a comparison group and implementing states as a treatment group to assess the effects of premarital education promotion policies. We obtained annual state-level panel data for all 50 states, excluding Washington, D.C. All analyses cover the period between 1988 and 2016 allowing for at least ten years of pre-intervention data for each state and a decade-long period after implementation. (West Virginia passed the legislation in 2012, so only 4 years of implementation data were available.) Utah was excluded as a state in the impact study because that policy was passed in 2018 and it is still awaiting implementation. Predictors included core elements of the legislation, quality of implementation, and several controls (i.e., percent of the population who identify as Black, White, and Hispanic; percent poverty, percent with high school degree, real GDP; median household income in current dollars; median age of the population; and percent of the population that is married which controls for variation in the divorce rate denominator). A series of sensitivity analyses (interpolation and using raw divorce rate data for Oklahoma and Minnesota) were conducted to account for missing data for several states (California, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Minnesota, and Oklahoma). Results of all the analyses, including the sensitivity analyses, revealed a similar story and minimal changes in coefficient sizes, but not in significance.

[8] The divorce rate in all states, including the implementing states, has been going down from 1988-2016. So, technically, our finding is that the divorce rate in the implementing states decreased slightly more, on average, compared to the non-implementing states.

[9] Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to get divorce rate data by years married.

[10] Schramm, D. G. (2006). Individual and social costs of divorce in Utah. Journal of Family and Economic Issues27, 133-151.