In response to the congressional mandate to promote two-parent families and marriage specified in the 1996 welfare reform legislation, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has embarked on an initiative to encourage healthy marriage in the broad population and especially within low-income groups. The mandate is supported by research showing that children who grow up with their own married parents are less likely to experience poverty and to fare better on a range of developmental outcomes compared with children in other family structures (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Amato 2001; McLanahan 1997). Congress has before it a proposal that would set aside funds for the purpose of developing and operating programs and services that help build relationship skills and strengthen and support healthy marriage. Much interest is emerging in developing programs that could target unmarried couples expecting a child. This growing interest is due largely to recent research showing that at the time of their child’s birth, the vast majority of unwed parents are romantically involved and hope to marry, yet are at high risk of ending their relationship (McLanahan et al. 2001, Carlson 2002).
To support further progress in this area, ACF is sponsoring a large-scale, comprehensive demonstration and evaluation of programs designed to strengthen relationships and support the marital aspirations of unmarried couples expecting a child: the Building Strong Families project (BSF). To inform the design and development of strong BSF programs, Mathematica conducted a related project (titled Evaluating the Implementation of Programs to Strengthen Families with Children Born Out of Wedlock, or ESF) to identify and study existing programs that have aspects similar to those envisioned for BSF programs. A major purpose of that project was to identify design and implementation issues likely to arise in BSF programs and describe strategies that have been used to address them in similar programs.