STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne. A few months, back in inner city Baltimore, a small group of graduates held a big celebration.
Unidentified Woman #1: The next certificates of completion are awarded to Ms. Alfreda Stewart and Mr. Anthony Polk.
(Soundbite of clapping)
MONTAGNE: These couples have completed a five-month class in how basically to be a couple, how to build a life together. None of them is married - not yet anyway - but they all have children. And the lives of those children might dramatically improve if their parents get married. That, at least, is what some experts believe. This year we've been running a series on getting out of poverty in America, and in our final story NPR's Rachel Jones reports on the early stages of a social experiment.
RACHEL JONES reporting:
Unidentified Man #1: One, two, three. Cheese!
JONES: After five months, the couples here are done with sitting in a classroom learning what a healthy relationship feels like. They're graduating with some new skills and some old challenges.
Unidentified Woman #2: I'm going to be calling on all of you. First of all, we're going to still be harassing y'all every 30 days to make sure y'all still together and see what's going on with you.
JONES: These African-American couples took part in a sort of group therapy for several hours once a week. They've learned how to fight fair, tell you partner what you need, and plan for the future. A million dollar federal grant helped pay for the classes. The government is putting many more millions into programs like this across the country.
Unidentified Woman #2: You all are a part of history. You are history in the making.
JONES: The people who run these classes are banking on research that suggests these couples will be better off financially if they're married. Among other reasons, married couples pool their incomes and more frequently save for their children's futures. And, the research says, married men tend to spend less time and less of the family's money outside the home.
Unidentified Woman #2: So let me ask this question. What is the biggest challenge when it comes to raising your child?
Unidentified Man #2: I think (unintelligible).
JONES: Relationship classes start with the basics for couples like Keesha Russell and Junior Holmes.
Mr. JUNIOR HOLMES (Class Participant): Ninety percent of the class, no one even talked about marriage until we came here. They never discussed it.
JONES: How about you, Keesha? As a girl did you think I want to one day grow up and get married and have kids?
Ms. KEESHA RUSSELL: No. That didn't even cross my mind. Because my mother, she took care of her kids by herself.
JONES: Did any of your friends or acquaintances have married parents?
Ms. RUSSELL: No. All my friends were just raised by their mother.
JONES: The couple has an 18-month-old son, Tavone(ph). They say after taking the class they're getting along better and thinking more about the future.
Mr. HOLMES: I never thought that I would even consider marrying Keesha because, like I said, how my attitude was. But now that I'm starting to understand more, I've been thinking about it and wanting it to happen.
JONES: Over the past decade, policy makers on both sides of the aisle have grown more and more enthusiastic about community-based programs that nurture healthy relationships and ideally marriage. Critics have long fiercely opposed marriage promotion as part of federal welfare policy. They say encouraging poor people to marry is a form of social engineering. They say it's an intrusion of the federal government into the personal lives of citizens, and point to research showing that women and their children are worse off in an abusive marriage than they would be on their own.
Mr. JOSEPH JONES: I think this is the way in which social welfare policy will emerge, evolve and change over the next several years.
JONES: Joseph Jones has earned a national reputation for supporting families in Baltimore's low-income communities. The center he runs won that million dollar grant to fund relationship classes. Jones says he used to be skeptical of federal marriage-promotion programs. After all, he says, the government's track record of fostering family ties among the poor hasn't been very good.
Mr. JONES: It was unfortunate that we ever had a public policy where the man had to basically duck when the caseworker knocked on the door, you know? But even now we still have what I consider to be a structural flaw in our welfare policy when the young lady walks into the welfare office to apply for benefits and they ask her for information about the guy she's pregnant by only for child support purposes, as opposed to saying, hey, you know, there's a man around. Thank God. Can you tell us about him? Let's bring him in. Let's figure out a way to help both of y'all.
Unidentified Man #3: Somebody get in the front? Somebody getting in the back?
JONES: But Jones says his program isn't just about marriage. It's about building healthy relationships, about parenting, and nobody is required to take these classes. Sure, they talk about marriage, but that's not the only goal.
Mr. JONES: What's up, Pops?
Unidentified Man #1: How're you doing?
Mr. JONES: All right. How're you, man?
Unidentified Man #3: Always good.
JONES: As Jones drives around East Baltimore, where he himself grew up, he says he wants to create a new culture in these neighborhoods, a culture of connection.
Mr. JONES: If I'm driving or I'm walking and I see a young man carrying a little baby, that to me says, hey, man, you know, here's a caregiver. Even if he's doing something negative, that's an opportunity to talk to him about, hey, what about some services or some ideas about doing something differently and then help him make that transition.
JONES: But time for exploring healthy relationships may seem almost like a luxury when there are so many other serious challenges. Few families can survive and stay whole without money, without jobs.
So whenever he gets the chance, Jones walks the streets of east Baltimore to promote a job training program that's also offered by his center.
Mr. JONES: If you're looking to get into the workforce, it doesn't make a difference if you've got a criminal record, right? You don't have a high school diploma? We'll work with you on all those issues and get you connected to the workforce. Get you (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #4: No, I got to leave up from here. I (unintelligible).
Mr. JONES: You got kids?
Unidentified Man #4: Yeah, I got kids.
Mr. JONES: Okay.
JONES: Right now, even Jones can't say how prominently marriage figures into the complex maze out of poverty. But in five years, he'll have some data. Researchers will study the effect that counseling and classes have had on couples here in Baltimore and in similar programs across the country.
Ms. ALFREDA STEWART: What time is it? Anthony!
JONES: They'll follow up with couples like Alfreda Stewart(ph) and Anthony Polk(ph). You heard them at the graduation celebration earlier.
Ms. STEWART: I think everybody there was basically really in the classes was - considered marriage at one point.
Mr. ANTHONY POLK: We actually told them how long we been together, they was like (unintelligible). You're already considered as a married couple because ya'll been together so long.
JONES: They say they've been together, off and on, for 17 years, and that they've learned a lot in the relationships class. But they say they're not ready for marriage. She works full-time as a mail carrier, but he's unemployed.
Ms. STEWART: He keeps telling me once he gets a better job he's like he's going to pop the question then.
Mr. POLK: Once I get myself employed, I can put a ring on layaway and propose to her, you know?
(Soundbite of music)
JONES: Alfreda Stewart and Anthony Polk live in subsidized housing, where their diploma from the relationships class sits on top of the TV, between pictures of their three children.
DASIA(ph): This is Boneya(ph).
JONES: One of them is 8-year-old Dasia.
DASIA: And this is Lauren(ph), another kind of doll. A Barbie doll.
JONES: And it is children like Dasia researchers will also pay attention to. As her parents listen, Dasia describes how the two of them got along, or didn't, before the class.
DASIA: ...like scream and holler. Like, get out of my house. I don't want you in my house.
JONES: So do you hear them now say things differently?
DASIA: Yes, like, Anthony walked in the house last time and said I'm sorry.
JONES: Later, Dasia picks up two of her favorite dolls.
DASIA: And this is my mommy and daddy.
JONES: A tall girl doll with long brown hair and a flashy dress. The boy doll sports a buzz cut. His plastic muscles are bulging.
DASIA: And they're getting groceries on her way home. Didn't you forget something? What did I forget? Something special.
(Soundbite of kissing)
DASIA: And they kiss each other goodnight.
JONES: Dasia lives in a place where some girls can't even imagine getting married. Never even thought about it. That's what Keesha(ph) said earlier. But Dasia says one day she will get married. When I get out of college, she says, I want a man like my daddy, Anthony, to help me out with the kids.
Rachel Jones, NPR News.
DASIA: See ya! See ya! (Unintelligible)
MONTAGNE: And to learn more about marriage education efforts and hear all the stories in our series on getting out of poverty, go to npr.org.
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