Dr. Matthew Johnson, Binghamton University – Marriage and Poverty

Feb 14, 2014

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Matthew Johnson of Binghamton University explains the link between poverty and marriage stability. 

Matthew Johnson is a professor of psychology at Binghamton University. He is director of the university's Marriage and Family Studies Laboratory, where he studies what makes marriages succeed or fail. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of California Los Angeles.

About Dr. Johnson

Dr. Matthew Johnson – Marriage and Poverty

Relationship scientists, like me, have spent nearly forty years trying to teach couples the skills that will improve marital quality and prevent divorce. Using data from laboratory studies of relationships, researchers developed several promising marital and relationship education programs. Early outcome studies of these programs led to optimism that they would have a positive impact on young couples.

About the time that the results of these early studies were becoming known beyond the confines of academia, the correlation between single-parent households and poverty was becoming a hot topic among policy makers. The combination of these two factors led the federal government to spend close to $1 Billion over the last ten years to teach relationship skills to low-income couples.

For relationship scientists, it has been an exciting opportunity to try out our ideas on a truly grand scale. Three large studies, looking at a total of nearly 200,000 couples, were conducted to evaluate the benefits of these programs. The data are now in--and the news is not good. In looking at outcome variables such as relationship quality, likelihood of dissolving the relationship, likelihood of interpersonal violence, and father involvement, couples who were taught relationship skills were more likely to be the same as or worse than couples in the control group.

The take-home message for relationship scientists and policy makers alike is that we need to rethink our strategies for intervening with couples. Instead of looking at how relationship quality and being married impact poverty, we need to think about how addressing the problems of poverty and financial insecurity can improve family functioning.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.