Family Support Research
The stability and well-being of families with children—particularly families with limited means—are central public policy concerns. Parents’ success in the labor market, and public programs to help them succeed, can affect the material comforts, self-esteem, and well-being they and their children enjoy, as well as the quality of couple and family relationships. Social programs can protect families in distress against the most severe consequences of economic cycles and personal misfortune, while promoting the goal of self-sufficiency. Because some of our most vulnerable families are headed by parents who had their first child as teens, policymakers have developed strategies to address these families' needs and have devised efforts in recent years to encourage teens to delay parenthood.
In addition, the key role fathers play in the cognitive and social development of their children is increasingly understood by researchers and policymakers and has become a central element of public policy debates on family well-being. Moreover, parents’ ability to maintain a loving and constructive relationship as a couple affects their own well-being and their capacity to provide the warmth and support young children need to thrive.
To strengthen the tools we have as a society to support families, Mathematica conducts research ranging from small exploratory studies to major multi-year evaluations. Our staff use clear, rigorous, and objective analysis to explore sensitive public policy issues and the dynamics of family behavior. We study initiatives to help families deal with their economic, social, and personal concerns, determining which interventions have the strongest chance of success and how public and nonprofit agencies can best design and manage services.
Increasing fathers' involvement and strengthening relationships between parents have emerged as central national policy strategies to improve the lives of low-income families and enhance the well-being of children. We are conducting studies to increase understanding about how to engage fathers more fully, help low-income couples solidify their relationships, and create the best environments in which to raise children.
Mathematica is currently conducting two studies of father involvement using random assignment research designs. Parents and Children Together (PACT) is a five-year evaluation of a new generation of responsible fatherhood programs. It consists of impact, implementation, and qualitative studies of selected fatherhood programs funded by three-year grants that were awarded by the Office of Family Assistance in 2011. The Child Support Noncustodial Parent Employment Demonstration (CSPED) is a five-year evaluation of programs in eight states that have received Office of Child Support Enforcement grants to provide employment, parenting, and child support–related services to noncustodial parents (mainly fathers), with most programs targeting parents who have weak employment histories and substantial child-support arrearages. The study will measure program impacts on noncustodial parents’ child-support contributions and will also include an implementation and benefit-cost analysis.
Our groundbreaking 10-year Building Strong Families (BSF) demonstration tested whether workshops on communication and relationship skills, combined with social supports, can help unwed parents stay together, manage conflict, maintain intimacy, increase the degree to which fathers are involved in their children’s lives, and improve children’s early development. The study used a rigorous, random-assignment design and included more than 5,000 couples in seven states. A report released in November 2012 provides long-term results on BSF’s impacts on couples after about 36 months, focusing on the stability and quality of the couples’ relationships.
Mathematica’s research on programs focused on improving relationships of low-income couples with children includes the Parents and Children Together (PACT) evaluation, which consists of implementation and impact analyses of healthy marriage programs in addition to responsible fatherhood programs. We have also studied the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, the longest-running statewide marriage initiative in the United States. In addition, we studied how low-income couples make decisions together and how a better understanding of these processes can improve the delivery and effectiveness of social service programs.
Focusing on Youth
Mathematica is conducting extensive research on programs that focus on the critical transition from childhood to adulthood, with a particular focus on youth at risk of not achieving self-sufficiency. Vulnerable youth include those growing up in poverty, teen parents, and those who have dropped out of school. We are studying strategies for addressing these and other risks and are providing policymakers with reliable evidence to inform policy debates.
Our Youth Development Demonstration is a project to develop a conceptual framework for programs aimed at improving the lives and self-sufficiency of at-risk youth. The purpose of the project is to inform decisions by the Administration for Children and Families about possible future demonstrations and evaluations of innovative program approaches for this population. The framework will take into account a variety of at-risk youth, including youth aging out of foster care, runaway and homeless youth, teens receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, teenage mothers, and young fathers.
Mathematica has a history of being at the forefront of adolescent pregnancy prevention research. Early initiation into sexual activity can put adolescents at risk of not only unplanned pregnancy but also sexually transmitted diseases. In 2007, we released a landmark study of abstinence-only education. Our five-year evaluation provided the first rigorous and objective data on how education advocating teenage abstinence affects teen sexual behaviors, finding little difference between control groups and those exposed to the four interventions studied. Additionally, we evaluated the Will Power/Won’t Power® initiative, a pregnancy prevention program sponsored by Girls, Incorporated®. Our current work on teen pregnancy prevention includes the Evaluation of Adolescnet Pregnancy Prevention Approaches, which is documenting and testing a variety of strategies for reducing the incidence of teen sexual activity and its consequences. The evaluation is testing a mix of program models, including comprehensive sex education and abstinence-based approaches. Mathematica is also studying the Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP) initiative. PREP provides formula grants to states to support evidence-based programs to reduce teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, as well as information on adulthood preparation subjects, such as healthy relationships and education and career planning. Mathematica is conducting a multi-component evaluation to document how PREP-funded programs are operationalized in the field and assess selected programs’ effectiveness.
Mathematica has also studied programs and policies to improve the lives of teen parents and their children. We conducted a national study of residential programs for teenage parents and documented their operations through site visits to programs in seven states. We have examined how states have implemented federal mandates to impose school attendance and parental residence requirements on teenage parents as a condition for their receipt of cash assistance. We also conducted the Teenage Parent Demonstration, an influential national evaluation of a strategy to move teen parents on welfare toward self-sufficiency.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, created in 1996, requires most welfare recipients to work and imposes time limits on welfare benefits. Recent changes in federal TANF rules place new pressures on states to reduce their welfare caseloads and increase the proportion of their TANF recipients in work activities. Mathematica’s research is providing useful guidance to states in this evolving policy environment.
The Workforce Participation and TANF/Work for Investment Act (WIA) coordination project seeks to improve program coordination between TANF and WIA. Through this study, Mathematica documents strategies for increasing client engagement in federal- and state-defined work activities and highlights promising practices in TANF/WIA coordination.
Previously, Mathematica conducted in-depth case studies to document strategies states are using to increase their TANF work participation rates, summarizing our findings in a series of practice briefs. We have studied other state TANF policies and practices, including diversion programs, sanctioning policies, and strategies for helping TANF recipients with disabilities succeed in the labor market. We also completed a rigorous evaluation of the effectiveness of two welfare-to-work strategies in rural areas of Illinois and Nebraska. The Nebraska program, a home visitation and life-skills education initiative designed to improve the basic life skills and job readiness of hard-to-employ TANF recipients, showed promise in improving employment outcomes, particularly among the most disadvantaged participants. We have analyzed a host of other TANF policies related to time limits, family and child well-being, work supports, and special populations. We have conducted large evaluations of state welfare-reform efforts in Iowa, New Jersey, and other states. Our early work in this area continues to shape the policy and research agenda.
Rigorous Research Reviews and Technical Assistance
Mathematica plays an important role in advancing the rigor of family-support research and identifying effective programs. To provide information for individuals and organizations interested in supporting responsible fatherhood, the Administration for Children and Families contracted with Mathematica to conduct a systematic review of research on programs serving low-income fathers. This information was compiled into a catalog of research released in 2012, with study profiles of 63 programs designed to encourage father involvement. We are also conducting a systematic review of the research literature on programs to reduce teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and associated sexual risk behaviors. Results are disseminated through a project website; special topic reports; and public presentations, webinars, and briefings. In addition, we are providing evaluation technical assistance to Teen Pregnancy Prevention grantees and their independent evaluators through trainings and site visits to ensure that programs are assessed using high-quality effectiveness evaluations.