With a $47 billion budget for programmes that support children and families, it is perhaps unsurprising that some federal resources be allocated to help reduce problems and prevent them from happening in the first place. Originating from welfare reform in 1996 that acknowledged the protective function of married couple families, the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) has been funding marriage education programmes and research since 2002.
That the initiative has achieved widespread support amongst policy-makers, researchers and practitioners is in no small way due to the active engagement with difficult and sensitive issues. As Bill Coffin, Special Assistant for Marriage Education in the Administration for Children and Families, makes clear in his paper, it is equally important to understand what the initiative is not about as well as what it is about.
It is not about promotion, coercion, stigma or restrictions. It is not a dating service. Nor is it about reducing support for lone parents. All funded programmes must consult and engage with domestic violence issues and there are specific initiatives aimed at different cultural and ethnic groups, such as African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. HMI has never been presented or intended as a panacea.
HMI is intended as a research-informed attempt to improve access to relationship education and support services that help individuals and families to succeed. Annual funding for the combined HMI and Responsible Fatherhood Initiatives stands at $166m in the 2008 fiscal year. Although representing less than 1% of the entire family support budget, it is not yet clear whether and how the incoming administration will continue this programme.
Amongst many high profile state-wide programmes operating to date, seven states are using the Building Stronger Families model that comprises individual services, group programmes, and referrals. Other models include Supporting Healthy Marriage and Community Healthy Marriage Initiatives. Two national research centres have been established and an ongoing programme of evaluation is well underway. These research efforts will continue through to 2013.