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April 10, 2004
Column #1,180

                   Community Marriage Policies Cut Divorce Rates
     For 30 years there has been one divorce for every two marriages in America. This 50 percent divorce rate has appeared to be granite that could not be chipped.

     However, a major new study released Monday provides evidence from 114 cities that clergy who make a public pledge to marital reforms in a "Community Marriage Policy" - can cut the divorce rate. Over seven years divorces fell 17.5 percent on average, or double the 9.4 percent decline of similar cities, according to Dr. Stan Weed, president of the Institute for Research and Evaluation, which conducted the two-year study.

     In each city Catholic and Protestant clergy agreed to adopt reforms aimed at making marriage a priority in their churches to reduce the divorce rate.  Most important, they all began demanding rigorous marriage preparation of at least four months in which couples are required to take a premarital inventory to assess their relationship objectively, and meet with a mentor couple to talk through 150+ issues it surfaces and to learn skills to resolve conflict.

     Clergy also signed a pledge to enrich existing marriages and train couples whose marriages once nearly failed, to mentor those in current crisis.

     "The results are important, not because of their magnitude, which is modest, but because there are any results at all," Weed told the National Press Club. "The deck was stacked against finding a program effect. Community Marriage Policies depend on local volunteers of varying degrees of motivation, commitment and ability and with high turnover. Local pastors change frequently. There's wide variation in program implementation.

     "The proportion of signed congregations is often small and those numbers are embedded in the larger county context. For example, if you have a county with 200 congregations and 20 of them get together to do this, you are only affecting a small percentage of the total county population. But our data is at the county level. So that means those 20 congregations have to have a whopping effect to influence that county statistic.

     "The serious training of mentor couples began in 1998. This program is relatively new. Then the local community group operated this on a shoestring. Under these conditions, finding a significant program effect is actually pretty surprising," Weed said with a smile.

     He estimated that in the 114 cities "about 31,000 divorces were averted, and that is a conservative estimate. It is not at all unreasonable to say there were 50,000."

     Since the U.S. divorce rate is declining slightly, Weed compared Community Marriage Policy (CMP) cities with control cities in each state without the intervention. Over seven years, their divorce rates fell 9.4 percent while CMP cities pushed their rates down 17.5 percent. But that's only an average. Actually nearly half of the CMPs did not do better than control cities. Therefore, the results of other cities had to be major to have a net decline of almost one-fifth.

     "This is the first national study which has shown us with hard evidence that these programs are having the desired effect of strengthening marriage and lowering the divorce rate," said David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, which hosted the press conference.

     Dr. Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary of Health & Human Services, added, "One criticism of the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative is that there is no evidence that this will actually work. This study goes a long way to address this question...The fact that they found effect for a program that had variable implementation is nothing short of extraordinary.

     "It is therefore disappointing that the Senate failed to pass welfare reform authorization last week. The President's Healthy Marriage Initiative is largely attached to that bill. It is not quite dead, but it is certainly on life support.

     "But the very good news is that not all good ideas depend on federal funding. Although this evaluation was funded with federal dollars, none of the work of Marriage Savers in implementing Community Marriage Policies has been funded by the Federal Government. And it has not just been successful in one or two communities, but has been planted in over 180 communities. So I am very encouraged by this work and this evaluation."

     By way of disclosure, this study was also heartening news for my wife and me who Co-Chair Marriage Savers and helped clergy create Community Marriage Policies beginning in 1986.

     Diane Sollee, director of Smart Marriages, a coalition of marriage educators, concluded, "I hope now that the leaders of the main faith-based denominations will put their weight behind this."

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