In a plenary talk at APA's 2005 Annual Convention, Wade Horn, PhD, countered theories that the Bush administration isn't interested in using empirical research to drive or evaluate its programs.

"The truth is, the policy community is hungry for good research because at the end of the day, whether you are liberal or conservative, whatever money you spend of the federal government's, you want to make sure it gets spent well," said Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

As head of the HHS Administration for Children and Families, Horn directs a $47 billion annual budget that supports 68 programs for children and families, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Head Start, as well as programs for adoption assistance, foster care and refugee resettlement. He said his background as a clinical child psychologist has fueled his commitment to grounding his programs in solid research--including the controversial Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI).

Forward thinking

Other HHS initiatives Horn discussed include a push to double the funding for child-abuse prevention efforts and a proposition before Congress to allow states to use foster-care monies for programs that aim to keep children out of foster care. Also, HHS is retraining Head Start teachers by tapping research findings on early literacy skills, such as the work of child development research psychologist G. Reid Lyon, PhD, former chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. And, for the first time in Head Start's history, HHS is assessing the program's effectiveness to determine whether it is "having the impact we want," Horn said.

He also explained how research gets into policy-makers' hands. "It's a rare policy-maker who actually reads a scientific journal," he said. "They read summaries of research put together by think tanks." At the same time, he added, "Think tanks have become advocates, and that is causing less good research to be utilized for the formation of public policy, but rather as a justification for policy that already exists."

"Honest brokers" in policy are becoming scarce, he noted, but he encouraged APA to keep its place among them.

"APA can have an enormous impact on policy, and it does," he said. "I look to APA for that kind of information, and my hope is that that kind of collaborative relationship will continue in the future."

Defending HMI

Though HMI has drawn criticism from many groups, Horn said that the marriage-education program geared to low-income couples is a research-based initiative and is often misunderstood.

"It's not about forcing anyone to get married...or trapping anyone in or encouraging anyone to get into an abusive relationship," Horn noted. "It's not about taking support away from single-parent households...or about seeing marriage as a solution to poverty."

Rather, he explained, the initiative aims to increase the number of healthy, stable marriages by giving low-income couples greater access to marriage counseling and education--an economic issue because they otherwise don't enjoy the same access to marriage education as more affluent couples, he said.

"The government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable in our society and in helping them increase their access to services that, through research, we know are helpful," said Horn.

Horn said that numerous studies--many conducted by psychologists--have found that on average children fare better when they grow up in stable, married households. Research also finds that marriage education improves couples' communication and problem-solving skills and that couples who learn to communicate more effectively report higher levels of marital satisfaction. HMI's goal, Horn explained, is to boost the number of good marriages, not just the number of marriages.

Meanwhile, HHS is funding an independent evaluation of HMI, he noted. One study is gauging its effectiveness with couples who are expecting or who have a newborn; a second is tracking marital education with couples throughout their childbearing years.

So far, the studies have found that low-income couples are receptive to these services and say their relationships improved as a result, Horn noted.