Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Long-Term Effects of Building Strong Families: A Program for Unmarried Parents

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Long-Term Effects of Building Strong Families: A Program for Unmarried Parents

Article excerpt

In 2010, over 40% of U.S. births were to unmarried parents (Martin et al., 2012). Most of the parents were in romantic relationships when their children were born; about half were living together (Carlson, McLanahan, England, & Devaney, 2005; Sigle-Rushton & McLana- han, 2002). Unmarried parents are typically optimistic about their future together, including the likelihood that they will eventually marry (Carlson et al., 2005). But these hopes are often unrealized. Most are no longer in a romantic relationship 5 years after their child's birth (Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, 2007).

The disruption of unmarried parents' relation- ships is significant because children growing up in households that do not include both their biological parents are at greater risk of poor outcomes (Amato, 2005; Carlson & Corcoran, 2001; Kim, 2011; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). For this reason, there is con- siderable interest among policymakers in sup- porting unmarried parents' efforts to maintain their relationships. The 1996 Personal Respon- sibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act made increasing the number of children raised in two-parent families an explicit pol- icy objective. In 2001, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, launched the Healthy Marriage Initiative. In 2005, Congress approved $100 million in annual funding for programs designed to encourage and strengthen marriage. This funding was continued in 2010 when Congress voted to provide $75 million annually for marriage education.

Building Strong Families (BSF) was one of the first major projects under ACF's Healthy Marriage Initiative. The project developed, implemented, and tested voluntary programs designed to help unmarried, economically disadvantaged parents who were expecting or had just had a baby strengthen their couple relationship, with the ultimate goal of helping them create a stable and healthy home environment for their children. The main component of the BSF model was relationship skills education offered to couples in group sessions. The model was implemented in eight sites and tested using a random-assignment research design involving over 5,000 couples. To track couples' outcomes, telephone surveys were conducted with both mothers and fathers 15 and 36 months after they applied for BSF.

Results based on the 15-month follow-up were released in 2010 (Wood, McConnell, Moore, Clarkwest, & Hsueh, 2010). That anal- ysis, which focused on interim outcomes- primarily the couples' relationship status and quality-found that BSF had no effect on these relationships when results from the eight evaluation sites were combined. However, the results varied across the eight sites, with one program having a consistent pattern of positive effects and another having a number of negative effects. The other six programs generally had little or no effect on relationships.

In this article, we present final BSF impact results based on the 3-year follow-up. The analysis examines how the somewhat mixed picture that emerged at 15 months has evolved over the longer term. It is important to examine long-term impacts because changes in relationship status can take time to unfold. Moreover, in this article we extend the analysis to additional domains associated with child well-being that were not examined in the 15- month analysis. The ultimate aim of BSF was to improve child well-being by improving parents' relationship stability and quality. To examine BSF's success in this area, we estimated impacts on the well-being of the children who made these couples eligible for BSF services: those born around the time couples applied for the program and who were about 3 years old at the final follow-up.

In addition, we examined BSF's effects on the couples who actually received the program's core service of relationship skills education. Getting couples to attend sessions proved challenging, and 45% of couples who were offered program services never attended these sessions. …

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