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A couple nurturing a tree, representing the growth and support in Utah’s Family Stabilization Program.

Beyond Love: How Utah’s Strategy Improves Marital Stability

Can federal dollars boost family stability? Utah's approach combines resources to strengthen marital bonds.

As established in the first article of this series, family relationships are the fundamental units of society, and therefore, there is a need to support these relationships with public policy. Spurred by the financial costs of increasing rates of family instability, the federal Administration for Children and Families has provided competitive grants since 2006 to community organizations to support preventative educational programs to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and strong marriages, as well as promote responsible, engaged fathering and cooperative coparenting. Federal funds—$150 million a year—have been focused on disadvantaged families where the need is greatest and who have less access to help for their family relationships. These funds originated in the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program passed during the Clinton administration that broadly reformed public welfare in the United States. The goals of the new TANF program were focused on promoting paid employment and building more stable, two-parent families. Under President George W. Bush, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families Dr. Wade Horn started providing competitive grants to community organizations to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships, as well as strengthen connections between fathers and children when parental relationships fall apart or fail to form. Those grants have been going for 17 years now. The policy initiative has been controversial, with concerns on both the political left and right, but recent research on the effectiveness of these programs has somewhat muffled the criticism. A handful of states also have tried to take up the cause of direct public support for relationship education.

Utah is noteworthy for its public policy efforts.

These public policy efforts were highlighted in a 2020 Congressional report, “A Policy Agenda for Social Capital,” produced under the direction of Utah Senator Mike Lee. The report explores “the evolving nature, quality, and importance of our associational life”—our families, communities, workplaces, and religious congregations—that “are critical to forming our character and capacities, providing our lives with meaning and purpose, and addressing the challenges we face in an increasingly disconnected world.” Utah consistently ranks as the state with the highest social capital, according to Sen. Lee, and “it provides an aspirational vision of what could be elsewhere.”

I agree with Sen. Lee here. Utah is noteworthy for its public policy efforts to develop educational resources to support stable, healthy marriages. This is a crucial element of the social capital that undergirds strong communities and societies. Conservative Utah might seem an unlikely candidate for building the premier state model for blending federal and state funds to support healthy marriages and relationships (and engaged fathering). However, under the coordinated efforts of the Utah Marriage Commission (UMC) and Healthy Relationships Utah (HRU), Utah has built an impressive, publicly-funded initiative to strengthen the most fundamental unit of civil society. 

UMC and HRU are both under the umbrella of Utah State University’s Extension System. HRU has used nearly $40 million of federal and state grants over the past 16 years (about $2.3 million a year) to teach more than 5,000 classes that reached more than 100,000 youth and adults with a variety of relationship-strengthening curricula. The Utah Marriage Commission’s funding since its inception in 1998 is harder to exactly calculate, but probably totals $7-8 million. The number of people reached by UMC is even harder to estimate, given its wide array of digital outreach services, but it would easily be in the mid-six-figure range. 

UMC and HRU combine to define the most extensive state-based initiative in the United States to make strong marriages, healthy romantic relationships, cooperative co-parenting, and engaged fathering a matter of intentional public policy. While other universities and community-based non-profit organizations use federal and state funds to support educational efforts to strengthen couple unions—two of which I will highlight in this series—Utah is unique in its formal state-level leadership of these social capital-building efforts.

About the author

Alan J. Hawkins

Alan J. Hawkins is manager of the Utah Marriage Commission and an emeritus professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life. His work focuses on educational interventions and public policies to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and stronger relationships, and prevent unnecessary divorce.
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