First Things First

Finding Techniques That Strengthen Families

  • Prosperity
  • 1997

A group of Chattanooga, Tennessee, businessmen led by Hugh Maclellan, the chairman of his family’s foundation, sat down in 1997 to confront the hard facts about collapsing families in their city, and the resulting multigenerational poverty. Their city had a divorce rate 50 percent higher than the already elevated national average, and the fifth highest unwed birth rate among U.S. cities. With funding from Maclellan and other local groups and individuals they launched an effort called First Things First to link religious congregations, private social-service groups, and public agencies to help regional residents build stronger marriages and be good parents. The organization worked with churches to widen premarital preparation. It launched parenting classes for fathers and mothers. It created media campaigns to publicize the advantages of family intactness for children and adults. It went into city schools, and it set up “lunch-and-learn” seminars inside workplaces.

First Things First trained mental-health professionals on how to help marriages in danger of divorce. It partnered with hospitals to provide Boot Camp for New Dads, and helped programs like Early Head Start incorporate fathering material into their curricula. It assisted the county divorce court in a divorce mediation project—couples with minor children must now take a class where they learn about the effects of divorce on children and then develop a post-divorce parenting plan. Judges find that these two requirements often dissuade couples from divorcing at all, and that those who do are now far less likely to revisit the courts over custody and child support.

Within nine years the locality had seen a 28 percent drop in divorce filings. Teen out-of-wedlock pregnancies decreased 23 percent. These rates have since fallen further.

Sometimes informed and inspired by the success of First Things First and sometimes acting on their own, numerous other cities and funders launched similar efforts in other places. From Families Northwest in Washington and Oregon, to Healthy Marriages Grand Rapids, to special efforts targeting black families in Baltimore, new initiatives in areas like marriage preparation, pre-divorce intervention, parenting education, and fatherhood reinforcement have sprung up regionally and nationally. Major funders have included the WinShape Foundation (funded by the Cathy family), Terry and Mary Kohler (who have given more than $5 million in this area), the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the DeVos family, the Johnson Foundation, and others. A National Healthy Marriage Resource Center has arisen to coordinate efforts by such groups.