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An experiment on the differences in the response and adaptation methods of adolescents under stress

Want to learn more about this and related topics? Sign up for our twice-monthly email newsletter. My name is Gordon Berlin. I am the executive vice president of MDRC, a unique nonpartisan social policy research and demonstration organization dedicated to learning what works to improve the well-being of disadvantaged families.

We strive to achieve this mission by conducting real world field tests of new policy and program ideas using the most rigorous methods possible to assess their effectiveness. I am honored to be invited to address your committee about what we know and do not know about the effects of marriage and divorce on families and children and about what policies and programs might work to promote and strengthen healthy marriages, especially among the poor. My goal is to briefly summarize the evidence in three areas: The central focus of my remarks will be to explicate the role that marital education, family counseling, and related services might play in promoting and strengthening healthy marriages and to discuss what we know about the potential of strategies that seek to ameliorate the key stressors for example, job loss, lack of income, domestic violence, and childbearing that make it difficult to form marriages in the first place or act as a catalyst that eventually breaks up existing marriages.

To summarize my conclusions: First, children who grow up in an intact, two-parent family with both biological parents present do better on a wide range of outcomes than children who grow up in a single-parent family. Single parenthood is not the only, nor even the most important, cause of the higher rates of school dropout, teenage pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, or other negative outcomes we see; but it does contribute independently to these problems.

Neither does single parenthood guarantee that children will not succeed; many, if not most, children who grow up in a single-parent household do succeed.

Second, an emerging body of evidence suggests that marital education, family counseling, and related services can improve middle-class couples' communication and problem-solving skills, resulting initially in greater marital satisfaction and, in some cases, reduced divorce, although these effects appear to fade over time.

Third, we do not know whether these same marital education services would be effective in reducing marital stress and eventual divorce among low-income populations or in promoting marriage among the unmarried.

Low-income populations confront a wide range of stressors that middle-class families do not. The evidence is limited, and mixed, on whether strategies designed to overcome these stressors, for example, by providing job search assistance or by supplementing low earnings, rather than relying solely on teaching marital communication and problem-solving skills would also increase the likelihood that low-income couples would marry or that married an experiment on the differences in the response and adaptation methods of adolescents under stress would stay together.

Fourth, to find out whether and what types of policies and programs might successfully strengthen marriage as an institution among low-income populations as well as among a wide variety of ethnically and culturally diverse populations, our national focus should be on the design, implementation, and rigorous evaluation of these initiatives.

Marriage, Divorce, and Single Parenthood Encouraging and supporting healthy marriages is a cornerstone of the Bush Administration's proposed policies for addressing the poverty-related woes of single-parent households and, importantly, for improving the well-being of low-income children. The rationale is reasonably straightforward: About a third of all children born in the United States each year are born out of wedlock.

Similarly, about half of all first marriages end in divorce, and when children are involved, many of the resulting single-parent households are poor. For example, less than 10 percent of married couples with children are poor as compared with about 35 to 40 percent of single-mother families. The combination of an alarmingly high proportion of all new births occurring out of wedlock and discouragingly high divorce rates among families with children ensures that the majority of America's children will spend a significant amount of their childhood in single-parent households.

Moreover, research shows that even after one controls for a range of family background differences, children who grow up living in an intact household with both biological parents present seem to do better, on average, on a wide range of social indicators than do children who grow up in a single-parent household McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994.

For example, they are less likely to drop out of school, become a teen parent, be arrested, and be unemployed. While single parenthood is not the main nor the sole cause of children's increased likelihood of engaging in one of these detrimental behaviors, it is one contributing factor. Put another way, equalizing income and opportunity do improve the life outcomes of children growing up in single-parent households, but children raised in two-parent families still have an advantage.

If the failure of parents to marry and persistently high rates of divorce are behind the high percentage of children who grow up in a single-parent family, can and should policy attempt to reverse these trends? Since Daniel Patrick Moynihan first lamented what he identified as the decline of the black family in his 1965 report, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, marriage has been a controversial subject for social policy and scholarship. The initial reaction to Moynihan was harsh; scholars argued vehemently that family structure and, thus, father absence was not a determinant of child well-being.

But then in the 1980s, psychologists Wallerstein and Kelly, 1980; Hetherington, 1982 began producing evidence that divorce among middle-class families was harmful to children. Renewed interest among sociologists and demographers Furstenberg and Cherlin, 1994 in the link between poverty and single parenthood soon emerged, and as noted above, that work increasingly began building toward the conclusion that family structure did matter McLanahan and Sandefur, 1994.

Of course, the debate was not just about family structure and income differences; it was also about race and gender.

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  • The initial reaction to Moynihan was harsh; scholars argued vehemently that family structure and, thus, father absence was not a determinant of child well-being;
  • If marital education programs could be mounted at scale, if participation rates among those eligible were high, and if the programs were effective in encouraging and sustaining healthy two-parent families, the effects on children could be important;
  • The Changing American Income Distribution.

When Moynihan wrote in 1965, 24 percent of all births among African-Americans occurred outside of marriage. Today, the black out-of-wedlock birthrate is almost 70 percent, and the white rate has reached nearly 24 percent. If single parenthood is a problem, that problem cuts across race and ethnicity.

But the story has nuance. In fact, there is some evidence that second marriages can actually be harmful to adolescents. Moreover, marriage can help children only if the marriage is a healthy one. Unhealthy marriages characterized by substantial parental conflict pose a clear risk for child well-being, both because of the direct negative effects that result when children witness conflict between parents, and because of conflict's indirect effects on parenting skills.

Marital hostility is associated with increased aggression and disruptive behaviors on the part of children which, in turn, seem to lead to peer rejection, academic failure, and other antisocial behaviors Cummings and Davies, 1994; Webster-Stratton, 2003.

While our collective hand-wringing about the number of American births that occur out-of-wedlock is justified, what is often missed is that the birthrate among unmarried women accounts for only part of the story. In fact, birthrates among unmarried teens and African-Americans have been falling — by a fourth among unmarried African-American women since 1960, for example Offner, 2001.

  1. Benjamin Karney, a psychologist at the University of Florida, has been conducting a longitudinal study of newly married couples. Yet, the impact on cognition resulting from a brain injury may force a student to adjust learning goals despite aptitude or interest in a given subject before injury.
  2. Moreover, only a handful of the studies collected information on child well-being.
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  5. But the full-sample findings cast some doubt on that promise with regard to divorce but not separations , reinforcing the need to replicate programs like MFIP for two-parent families in different settings before reaching conclusions about the contribution such strategies might make toward strengthening marriage.

How, then, does one explain the fact that more and more of the nation's children are being born out of wedlock? Because the nonmarital birth ratio is a function of 1 the out-of-wedlock birthrate births per 1,000 unmarried women2 the marriage rate, and 3 the birthrate among married women births per 1,000 married women - the share of all children born out of wedlock has risen over the last thirty years, in large measure, because women were increasingly delaying marriage, creating an ever larger pool of unmarried women of childbearing age, and because married women were having fewer children.

Indeed, families acted to maintain their standard of living in the face of stagnant and falling wages, earnings, and incomes during the 1970s and 1980s by having fewer children and sending both parents into the workforce, a strategy that undoubtedly has increased the stress on low-income two-parent families Levy, 1988and that contributed to the rise in out-of-wedlock births as a proportion of all births. Concern about these trends in out-of-wedlock births and divorce, coupled with the gnawing reality that child poverty is inextricably bound up with family structure, has encouraged conservatives and some liberals to focus on marriage as a solution.

Proponents of this approach argued that many social policies — welfare and tax policy, for example — were actually anti-marriage, even if research only weakly demonstrated that the disincentives to marry embedded in these policies actually affected behavior.

Moreover, they maintained that social policy should not be neutral — it should encourage and support healthy marriages — and they stressed the link between child poverty and single parenthood and an experiment on the differences in the response and adaptation methods of adolescents under stress positive child effects associated with two-parent families. The focus on marriage was met with skepticism by others. Critics argued that marriage was not an appropriate province for government intervention and that income and opportunity structures were much more important factors than family structure.

They questioned why the focus was on low-income families when the normative changes underlying the growth in single-parent households permeated throughout society, as witnessed by the prevalence of divorce across all economic classes. Designed by two prominent academics, Sara McLanahan and Irv Garfinkel, the study is a longitudinal survey of 5,000 low-income married and nonmarried parents conducted in 75 hospitals in twenty cities at the time of their child's birth.

Among mothers who were not married when their child was born, 83 percent reported that they were romantically involved with the father, and half of the parents were living together. Nearly all of the romantically involved couples expressed interest in developing long-term stable relationships, and there was universal interest in marriage, with most indicating that there was at least a fifty-fifty chance that they would marry in the future.

Looking at employment history and other factors, researchers estimated that about a third of the couples had high potential to marry; another third had some problems, like lack of a job, that could be remedied; while the final third were not good candidates due to a history of violence, incarceration, and the like McLanahan, Garfinkel, and Mincy, 2001. There was certainly reason to be cautious about presuming a link between what people said and what they might actually do, and longer follow-up data did indeed throw some cold water on initial optimism.

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However, when the Fragile Families data were thrown into the mix with the trend data and with the data that suggested that family structure was a determinant of poverty, the reaction was catalytic. The notion was reinforced that more marriage and less child poverty would result if public policies could just be brought in line with the expressed interests of low-income couples.

Marital Education Can Work But what, if anything, could government actually do to promote marriage among low-income families? For some policy analysts, the discovery of marriage education programs seemed to provide the missing link. To the surprise of many, not only did these programs exist, but there was a body of evidence, including more than a dozen randomized trials, indicating that marriage education programs could be effective.

Marriage education refers to services that help couples who are married or planning to marry to strengthen their communication and problem-solving skills and thus their relationships. Some of the cutting-edge work now underway provides a flavor of the approaches being developed. Phil Cowan and Dr. Carolyn Cowan, both professors of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, have been involved in the development and rigorous testing of family instruction models for more than twenty years.

Benjamin Karney, a psychologist at the University of Florida, has been conducting a longitudinal study of newly married couples.

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John Gottman, who leads the Relationship Research Institute where he focuses on marriage, family, and child development, has developed and carefully evaluated some of the most innovative new approaches to marital education and group instruction. Pamela Jordan developed the Becoming Parents Program, a couple-focused educational research program being tested in a large randomized trial. Among the skills-training programs, PREP is the most widely used with couples who are about to marry.

It teaches skills such as active listening and self-regulation of emotions for conflict management and positive communication. PREP also includes substantial content on topics such as commitment, forgiveness, and expectations clarification. PREP appears to have a significant effect on marital satisfaction initially, but the effect appears to fade over time Gottman, 1979and there is some indication that it improves communication among high-risk couples but not low-risk couples Halford, Sanders, and Behrens, 2001.

Therapeutic interventions are more open-ended and involve group discussions, usually guided by trained professionals to help partners identify and work through the marriage problems they are facing. The most carefully evaluated of the structured group discussion models targeted couples around the time of their child's birth, an event that triggers substantial and sustained decline in marital satisfaction. Couples meet in a group with a trained therapist over a six-month period that begins before the child is born and continues for another three months after the birth.

Initially, marital satisfaction soared and divorce rates plummeted relative to a similar group of families that did not participate in the program.

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  5. I am the executive vice president of MDRC, a unique nonpartisan social policy research and demonstration organization dedicated to learning what works to improve the well-being of disadvantaged families. Classroom and testing accommodations that institutions may effectively use with both groups of students include preferential seating, extra time on tests, and individualized instructions for tests and assignments.

But the divorce effects waned by the five-year follow-up point, even while marital satisfaction remained high for those couples who stayed together Schultz and Cowan, 2001. More recent work by Cowan and Cowan and by John Gottman appears to produce more promising results. The Cowans found positive effects in the school performance of children whose parents participated in their couples instruction and group discussion program.

Gottman describes improved cooperative interaction between the parents and their infant child and sustained increased involvement by fathers. While the results from the marriage education programs are encouraging, they are not definitive. Most of the studies are small, several have serious flaws, and only a few have long-term follow-up data and those that do seem to show decay in effectiveness over time.

Moreover, only a handful of the studies collected information on child well-being.

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Most importantly, all of the programs studied served mostly white, middle-class families, not the low-income and diverse populations that would be included in a wider government initiative.

Context and Low-income Families Not surprisingly, low-income couples have fewer resources to cope with life's vagaries. They are more likely to experience job loss, have an unexpected health or family crisis, be evicted from or burned out of their home, be the victim of a violent crime, and so forth.

As a result, they face greater difficulty than middle-class individuals in forming and sustaining marriages. With the exception of African-Americans, low-income couples are not less likely to marry; but they are more likely to divorce when they do marry. Yet evidence from the Fragile Families survey of 5,000 low-income couples who have just given birth to a child and ethnographic interviews conducted with low-income women in Philadelphia by Kathy Edin of Northwestern University provide convincing evidence that low-income people share the same normative commitment to marriage that middle-class families demonstrate.

The poor want to marry, but they insist on marrying well. This…is the only way to avoid an almost certain divorce. One possible explanation is the mismatch between a large number of stressful events they face and few resources with which to respond to those stressors. The imbalance places greater demands on the individuals in a dyad, leaving less time together and less time to dedicate to relationship building than might be the case for a middle-class couple.

In addition, the problems low-income couples have to manage — problems such as substance abuse, job loss, eviction, chronic infidelity, a child with a chronic condition like asthma or developmental delays, and criminal activities — may be more severe than those confronted by better-off couples. Edin, 2004; Karney, Story, and Bradbury, 2003; Heyman, 2000.

Because the problems low-income couples confront are likely to be more acute and chronic than those faced by middle-class couples, it is an open question whether the problem-solving and communication skills taught by marital education programs will be as effective among low-income couples as they appear to have been for middle-class couples where the evidence base is still evolving. Clearly, the skill sets taught in those programs and the strategies applied by therapists and counselors to solve the problems couples present will need to be adapted.