Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education with Integrated Economic Stability Services: The Impacts of Empowering Families

Publication Date: December 21, 2021
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  • Published: 2021

Introduction

Research Questions

  1. What are the impacts of the Empowering Families program on couples’ relationship status and quality, co-parenting quality, connection to the labor market, labor market success, and family economic well-being?

Research suggests that children fare best when raised in stable, low-conflict, two-parent families. However, economic and other challenges faced by families with low incomes can make it hard for them to achieve a stable, low-conflict family environment. Couples facing economic stressors, such as poverty and debt, can experience lower relationship quality and stability. In addition, these stressors can consume their mental energy, requiring them to focus only on their most pressing needs. Therefore, couples with low incomes may have limited mental bandwidth to focus on their relationships or to participate in or benefit from relationship education programs.

Recognizing this challenge, the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) within the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has funded healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programs that integrate HMRE and economic stability services. Previous studies have shown that HMRE programs that offer job and career advancement services can meaningfully improve the relationships of couples with low incomes; however, these programs have been less successful at improving labor market outcomes.

This study builds on earlier research by assessing the effectiveness of an HMRE program that aimed to offer more intensive economic stability services than previously studied HMRE programs and that integrated those services more fully with HMRE content. To conduct the study, ACF’s Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation (OPRE), with funding from OFA, engaged Mathematica and its partner Public Strategies to collaborate with The Parenting Center in Fort Worth, Texas, a community-based social service provider, to conduct an impact study of its Empowering Families program. Empowering Families integrates economic stability services—including, employment services and financial education—with HMRE content for couples with low incomes who are raising children together. The Empowering Families program included an eight-session workshop that integrated HMRE content with information on financial literacy and job and career advancement. The HMRE content came from Family Wellness, a relationship skills and parenting curriculum designed to promote healthy family interactions. The program supplemented workshops with one-on one services, including case management, financial coaching, and employment counseling.

Purpose

This report is the second in a series of two reports on the implementation and impacts of Empowering Families. It describes the program’s impacts after one year. These impacts were estimated by comparing the outcomes of couples who were randomly assigned to either a group that was offered Empowering Families services or a control group that was not. The report also provides information on program implementation and costs and documents the study methods. An earlier report provided detailed information on the program’s design and implementation during the first year of the impact study. Mathematica and Public Strategies conducted this study as part of the Strengthening Relationship Education and Marriage Services (STREAMS) evaluation for ACF.

Key Findings and Highlights

  • Empowering Families was successful in its central goal of strengthening couples’ relationships. The program improved all five dimensions of relationship quality we examined, including the level of support and affection partners felt toward each other, their use of constructive conflict behaviors, their avoidance of destructive conflict behaviors, and the level of commitment and happiness they felt toward their relationship one year after entering the program. It also improved the quality of couples’ co-parenting relationships.
  • Couples in both research groups had similar rates of marriage and romantic involvement at the one-year follow-up. Subgroup analysis suggested that Empowering Families increased marriage among initially unmarried couples; among those initially married, both research groups were equally likely to remain together.
  • Empowering Families and control group members reported equally high levels of having a job or looking for one. Average earnings were also similar for both research groups during the one-year follow-up period.
  • Empowering Families reduced the number of economic hardships experienced by families in the program. Those in the Empowering Families group reported 12 percent fewer material hardships during the one-year follow-up period than control group families reported. Exploratory analyses suggest that Empowering Families improved participants’ ability to manage their money, particularly for women.
  • Exploratory analyses also suggested that Empowering Families increased disapproval of couple violence for both women and men; however, rates of intimate partner violence were unaffected. The program reduced depressive symptoms for men but not for women.

Methods

Between September 2016 through December 2018, 879 couples enrolled in the study. To be eligible for program services, both members of the couple had to (1) be age 18 or older, (2) report that they were in a committed relationship with their partner, (3) be interested in participating in a program that offered both relationship skills and economic stability services, and (4) report that they were not currently experiencing domestic violence. In addition, because a key goal of the program was to improve child well-being, at least one member of the couple needed to have a biological or adopted child who was younger than 18 and lived with that member of the couple at least half-time. The study team randomly assigned couples to one of two groups: (1) a program group that was offered participation in Empowering Families or (2) a control group that was not offered the program but was free to seek other services available in the community. For the impact analysis presented in this report, we used data from a baseline survey that was administered at the time of enrollment and a one year follow-up survey. A total of 791 couples had at least one partner respond to the follow-up survey for a response rate of 90 percent. The response rate was 86 percent among women in the study and 77 percent among men. Response rates were similar for the two research groups.

Recommendations

The Empowering Families program provided an integrated package of relationship education and economic stability services to couples with low incomes raising children together. Impact findings indicate that Empowering Families was successful in its central goal of strengthening couples’ romantic relationship quality, as well as their co-parenting relationship. Moreover, these effects were larger than those found in earlier studies of HMRE programs for couples with low incomes.

Why did Empowering Families have larger effects on relationship quality than those found in earlier studies? One possibility is that the Family Wellness curriculum might be particularly effective at improving relationship quality for couples with low incomes. This study provides the first rigorous evidence of the curriculum’s effects. Another possibility is that Empowering Families’ success in reducing couples’ economic stresses—possibly due to the program’s more intensive focus on economic stability services—may have in turn improved couples’ relationship quality. Lower stress may have also made it easier for couples to absorb and apply the relationship education they received.

The program had no overall impact on couples’ relationship status at the one-year follow-up period. However, exploratory subgroup analysis suggests that Empowering Families did increase the likelihood of initially unmarried couples getting married during the one-year follow-up period. This exploratory finding is notable because earlier research on HMRE programs for couples with low incomes has not found impacts on marriage rates among those who were initially unmarried.

Empowering Families did not improve labor market outcomes at the one-year follow-up. This finding is similar to earlier research on HMRE programs that offered job and career advancement services and is consistent with the fact that relatively few programs offering job and career advancement services to populations with low income have been shown to increase earnings.

Despite its lack of impacts on participants’ earnings, Empowering Families reduced economic hardship among participating families. How might this pattern of impacts have emerged? One possibility is that the program’s financial literacy services helped participating couples avoid certain economic hardships by managing their limited resources more effectively, an explanation that is consistent with exploratory analysis showing favorable impacts on participants’ ability to manage their money. The program’s strong effects on relationship quality may also have played a role. If couples were able to manage conflict and communicate more effectively, they might be able to manage their joint finances better and thus reduce their family’s exposure to economic hardship. In addition, the integrated approach to relationship education and financial literacy offered by Empowering Families may have helped couples apply these newly learned relationship skills to the financial aspects of their lives, such as joint budgeting and money management.

This pattern of findings—reduced economic hardship, improved management of money, but no increase in participants’ earnings—points to the potential importance of the program’s financial literacy services in improving participants’ economic outcomes. Future HMRE programs should consider integrating financial literacy services with relationship education and partnering with organizations experienced in providing such services. These results also suggest that HMRE programs for couples that supplement their services with economic stability content might want to focus more on financial literacy services than employment services. Future research should examine whether other HMRE programs with strong financial literacy components have similar success in improving the economic well-being of their participants.

Citation

Wu, April Yanyuan, Quinn Moore, and Robert G. Wood (2021). Healthy Marriage and Relationship Education with Integrated Economic Stability Services: The Impacts of Empowering Families, OPRE Report #2021-224, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.