Juan and Magdalena Hernandez have been married for eight years.
What they love most about each other—he’s uncommonly patient and respectful; she’s especially decisive and determined—are the very things they now know they can improve on: He can be more communicative and quicker to respond; she can be less headstrong and more deliberative.
While they’ve always known this about each other, earlier this year they learned how to work with that knowledge to make their marriage better. The Hernandezes, who attended a Healthy Marriage Initiative class at their church, St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Plano, are among the first couples in the U.S. to benefit from a new federal government program to support Hispanic marriages.
Hispanics, who now make up the nation’s largest minority group, have had high dropout and poverty rates, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children and Families.
The federal government believes that by strengthening Hispanic marriages, it can provide families a foundation to better address issues of poverty and education. Children whose parents are married fare better and present less of a burden to the state than children of single parents, says Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families.
The idea of voluntary marriage education, particularly for low-income Hispanics, is evolving. Marriage therapists, Hispanic community leaders and researchers are still laying groundwork for curriculum, implementation and review. This spring, they met for a national conference in San Antonio, where they discussed those topics.
“The whole rationale of this initiative is not moralizing or pushing people to get married or insisting that they stay in marriages that are unhealthy. It is simply about educating people who voluntarily want to consider marriage,” says Frank Fuentes, who is heading the Hispanic Healthy Marriage Initiative in Washington, D.C.
Last year, Congress approved the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which would spend $150 million a year to promote marriage and active fatherhood nationwide, particularly among low-income and minority families.
This year, the federal government is spending $100 million on marriage education for Hispanic couples in particular. There’s also an African- American Healthy Marriage Initiative.
Mr. Fuentes says his office is working with groups that have developed trust within minority communities. For Hispanics, that means the federal government will contract with predominantly Hispanic school districts, churches and groups, and will start marriage classes on a larger scale this year.
“We need to work with Latinos in their culture and traditions so they’re not going to blow you off,” Mr. Fuentes says. “They’re not going to participate if they don’t trust you or if they think you don’t know where they’re coming from.”
The idea is controversial for some who have studied Hispanic marriage patterns. They say such efforts are better directed toward improving wages and employment opportunities for Hispanics. Those are among the greatest factors leading to divorce for all ethnicities.
“Everyone can benefit from learning how to communicate better with their spouse or their co-worker or their family members,” says Kim Lloyd, assistant professor of sociology at Washington State University.
“But if you wanted to get to the root of the problem, what we need to do is make sure that every American family had a living wage, could find a job and provide health care for children. These are the things that keep families together.”
Dr. Lloyd argues that Hispanics, who divorce at the same rate as the general population, actually have lower rates of divorce when researchers factor in poverty rates and income.
“In spite of the greater economic instability that Hispanics face, the divorce rate is the same,” she says.
Mr. and Ms. Hernandez, who have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and are lay leaders in their church, have their own ideas about why the divorce rate of about 50 percent among their immigrant peers is high when compared with the divorce rate in Mexico—roughly 6 percent.
“It’s part of the environment here,” Mr. Hernandez says. “As they become more assimilated, it’s what people do.”
Ms. Hernandez puts it this way: “I think it sometimes depends on the economic and financial independence of the women. Many women come to this country, and this is the first time that they have any kind of financial independence. And they become influenced and less tolerant.”
Academics who study the subject confirm what the Hernandezes say.
“The women are adopting egalitarian norms and want greater equality in marriages. And the men tend to resist,” says Norval Glenn, a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Advocates say marriage education can help men learn how to adapt to gender-equity norms in the United States to prevent divorce.
“We try to bring up the machismo in the classes and give it a new perspective,” says Mercedes Pérez de Colón, vice president of Avance, a San Antonio-based nonprofit group that provides parent education at more than a dozen North Texas locations. “It can be a positive thing. You’re not being ‘not macho’ if you help with the children. You’re being more macho. You’re being a great father and husband.”
“In this country, where life is faster and devoted to work, we have to work to conserve our traditions and customs and beliefs and not lose our identity. We have to adapt. But we have to take what’s good and make it better, without forgetting everything we were taught,” Ms. Hernandez says.