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Can Relationship Skills Education Help Unmarried Parents and Their Children?
Findings from Mathematica’s Study of Building Strong Families

Media Advisory: May 24, 2010

Contacts: Amy Berridge, (609) 945-3378

Issue: Studies have consistently shown that children fare best when raised by both their biological parents—particularly when their parents have a positive and healthy relationship. Helping unmarried couples—particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds—improve their relationship and increase the likelihood that they remain together, then, could ultimately benefit their children.

The Building Strong Families (BSF) project, sponsored by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, supported development, implementation, and testing of eight voluntary programs that offer relationship skills education and other support services to unwed couples who are expecting a baby or have just had one. To be eligible, couples must be romantically involved, both partners must be 18 or older, and they must pass a domestic violence screen. BSF offers couples group sessions on relationship skills covering topics like communication, conflict management, and building intimacy and trust. The program also provides individual support from a family support worker, and referrals to other services to address life problems couples are facing.  

Study: Mathematica Policy Research conducted an experimental evaluation, in eight locations, of BSF programs that used one of three different curricula. The evaluation assessed the program’s impact on the stability and quality of couples’ relationships. More than 5,000 interested couples were randomly assigned to either a BSF group that could participate in the program or a control group that could not. Mathematica then compared outcomes for these two groups. This report provides short-term results on BSF’s impacts on couples about 15 months after they applied for the program, focusing on the key outcomes BSF was designed to affect—the stability and quality of the couples’ relationships. A future report to be released in 2012 will assess the longer term effects, including impacts on child well-being.

Findings:

  • When the results from all eight programs are combined, we find that BSF did not achieve its primary objective of improving couple relationships. On average, 15 months after entering the program, the relationship outcomes of BSF couples were almost identical to the outcomes of control-group couples.
  • BSF’s effects varied across the eight individual programs included in the study.
    • The BSF program in Oklahoma City had a consistent pattern of positive effects on couples’ relationships.
    • The Baltimore BSF program had numerous negative effects on relationships.
    • The other six programs had limited or no effect on relationships.
  • BSF had positive effects for African American couples—about half the couples served by the program—improving the quality of their relationships.

Quote: “Our results suggest that it’s difficult to make this approach work. And it may not be for all unmarried parents, since we found negative effects in one of the eight programs,” said Robert G. Wood, senior researcher at Mathematica and lead author of the study. “However, the mixed results we’ve seen, in particular the success of the Oklahoma program and the positive effects for African American couples, also suggest this approach can work in some circumstances.”

Reports: "Strengthening Unmarried Parents’ Relationships: The Early Impacts of Building Strong Families." Robert G. Wood, Sheena McConnell, Quinn Moore, Andrew Clarkwest, and JoAnn Hsueh, May 2010. Executive Summary.

About Mathematica: Mathematica Policy Research, a nonpartisan research firm, provides a full range of research and data collection services, including program evaluation and policy research, survey design and data collection, research assessment and interpretation, and program performance/data management, to improve public well-being. Its clients include federal and state governments, foundations, and private-sector and international organizations. The employee-owned company, with offices in Princeton, N.J., Ann Arbor, Mich., Cambridge, Mass., Chicago, Ill., Oakland, Calif., and Washington, D.C., has conducted some of the most important studies of family support, health care, international, disability, education, employment, nutrition, and early childhood policies and programs.