Academic journal article Family Relations

Does Social and Economic Disadvantage Moderate the Effects of Relationship Education on Unwed Couples? an Analysis of Data from the 15-Month Building Strong Families Evaluation

Academic journal article Family Relations

Does Social and Economic Disadvantage Moderate the Effects of Relationship Education on Unwed Couples? an Analysis of Data from the 15-Month Building Strong Families Evaluation

Article excerpt

The Administration for Children and Fami- lies (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) initiated the Building Strong Fam- ilies (BSF) project in 2002. This project involves the development and evaluation of relationship education programs for unmar- ried couples with young children. Most of these couples face a variety of economic and social disadvantages, and their relationships tend to be unstable. The goal of BSF programs is to strengthen the quality and stability of these unions and, in so doing, improve the well-being of children.

In2005,MathematicaPolicyResearch(MPR) began a formal evaluation of BSF programs in eight sites. Over a 3-year period, more than 5,000 couples were enrolled, with the first round of evaluations occurring about 15 months after couples entered the program. The 15-month evaluation found, with all eight sites pooled, no impacts of the program on the likelihood that couples married or stayed together. Similarly, the program had no effects on relationship quality (happiness, support, constructive and destructive conflict behaviors, faithfulness, and physical aggression) among those who remained together (Wood, McConnell, Moore, Clarkwest, & Hsueh, 2010). One site (Oklahoma City) showed a consistent pattern of positive effects on relationship quality, whereas another site (Baltimore) showed a consistent pattern of negativeeffects.Theremainingsixsitesrevealed littleevidenceofprogrameffects.Theevaluation also found that couples in which both partners were African American (but not couples from other racial or ethnic groups) appeared to benefit from program participation.

The results of a 36-month MPR evaluation were comparable; the BSF program had no over- all effects on relationship quality or stability, although some positive effects were observed in one site (Oklahoma), and some negative effects were observed in another (Florida). The general benefits for African American couples observed at 15 months had dissipated by the time of the 36-month follow-up (Wood, Moore, Clarkwest, Killewald, & Monahan, 2012).

These findings have contributed to a debate among researchers and practitioners about the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education for low-income populations. Some observers have argued that financial problems and everyday stress overwhelm any potentially positive outcomes of education (e.g., Johnson, 2012; Karney & Bradbury, 2005). Other observers have acknowledged that the goals of relationship education are more difficult to achieve among low-income populations. Nevertheless, they claim that existing programs have shown enough evidence of success (albeit modest) to warrant more development and continuing evaluation (e.g., Hawkins & Fackrell, 2010; Hawkins et al., 2013).

These disagreements assume that socially and economically disadvantaged couples respond less positively to marriage and relationship education than do more advantaged couples - an assumption that has rarely been tested. In fact, many authors have recommended estimating the effects of social programs on subgroups of par- ticipants defined by pretreatment characteristics (Bloom & Michalopoulos, 2013; Gibson, 2003). For example, to answer the question ''What works best for whom?'' in welfare-to-work programs, Michalopoulos (2004) created a summary disadvantage index based on three variables: educational attainment, welfare history, and earnings in the year prior to random assignment. His assessment indicated that program components were differentially beneficial for individuals at different levels of disadvantage. For example, job search assistance (but not education) produced the most consistent gains in earnings for the most disadvantaged group. The value of this approach seems clear; that is, relationship education would be more effective if services could be targeted to those couples most likely to benefit.

This study involved a reanalysis of data from the 15-month MPR evaluation. …

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