Parents and Children Together: Effects of Two Healthy Marriage Programs for Low-Income Couples

Publication Date: June 4, 2018
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Research Questions

  1. What is the effect of offering HMRE services to low-income couples on (1) the status and quality of the couple relationship, (2) co-parenting, and (3) job and career status?

Growing up with two parents in a stable, low-conflict family can improve children’s lives in a broad range of areas. However, the economic and other challenges faced by low-income families can make it hard for these families to achieve a stable, low-conflict family environment. Recognizing this challenge, as well as the potential benefits of healthy marriages and relationships for low-income families, the federal government has funded programming to encourage healthy marriage and relationships for many years. To expand our understanding of what works in healthy marriage and relationship education (HMRE) programming, the Office of Family Assistance (OFA) in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded, and ACF’s Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation oversaw, a contract with Mathematica Policy Research to conduct the Parents and Children Together (PACT) evaluation. The PACT Healthy Marriage (HM) impact study included a large-scale, random assignment examination of two HMRE programs funded and overseen by OFA. This report discusses the impacts of these programs about one year after study enrollment on (1) the status and quality of the couples’ relationships, (2) the co-parenting relationships, and (3) job and career advancement.

From among all HMRE programs that received OFA funding through grants issued in 2011, the study team selected two for the PACT HM study: (1) Supporting Healthy Relationships, at University Behavioral Associates in the Bronx, New York; and (2) the Healthy Opportunities for Marriage Enrichment Program, at the El Paso Center for Children in El Paso, Texas. As a requirement of their grants, the two programs offered services to support and strengthen couples’ relationships. The relationship skills workshops at both programs covered similar topics, such as understanding partner’s perspectives, developing strategies to avoid fighting, and communicating effectively. In response to the funding announcement, the two programs integrated job and career advancement services into their programs. Both programs offered two-hour stand-alone job and career advancement workshops and one-on-one meetings with employment specialists. Supporting Healthy Relationships also integrated four hours of content related to economic and financial well-being into the relationship skills workshops. Participation rates were high for the HM programs in PACT, although attendance at the relationship skills workshops was much higher than for job and career advancement services.

Couples in the PACT HM study were in relatively stable and committed relationships when they enrolled in the study. Of the 1,595 study couples, 59% reported being married when they enrolled and about half of the study couples had been together for at least five years. About three-quarters of the couples were Hispanic. Most couples were in their 30s and had relatively low levels of education and earnings.


ACF conducted the PACT HM study to provide rigorous evidence on the effectiveness of HMRE services for low-income families. Recognizing that programs are always changing and developing, the study seeks to provide a building block in the evidence base to guide ongoing and future HMRE program design and evaluation. The PACT HM impact results are not intended to determine whether HMRE programs as a whole are effective, because the program’s included in the study are not representative of all HMRE grantees or HMRE programs more broadly.

The PACT HM study adds to the prior research on the effectiveness of healthy relationship programming for low-income couples in two important ways. First, it examines programs that offer HMRE services in conjunction with low-intensity job and career advancement services. Prior research has not rigorously examined this approach. Second, the study examines the effectiveness of offering HMRE services to a mix of married and unmarried low-income couples raising children. Most prior studies have examined programs designed to serve either married couples or unmarried couples exclusively.

Key Findings and Highlights

Key impact findings of the project included:

  • The HM programs in PACT improved multiple aspects of the couple relationship. They improved couples’ relationship quality, including the level of commitment partners felt toward their relationship and the level of support and affection they felt toward each other. There is also some evidence that the programs helped couples avoid destructive conflict behaviors, although the programs did not improve use of constructive conflict behaviors or relationship happiness.
  • The programs increased the likelihood that couples were married at the one-year follow-up by about 4 percentage points (63% for the program group versus 59% for the control group). Exploratory analysis indicates that this increase in marriage resulted from preventing couples who were married at baseline from breaking up, rather than encouraging marriage among those who were not initially married.
  • The programs improved couples’ co-parenting relationships.
  • The programs had more limited success in improving the economic outcomes of participants. There is mixed evidence that the programs improved women’s earnings during the follow-up period. The programs did not affect men’s earnings or their perceptions of economic improvement.


From July 2013 to April 2015, the PACT HM study team randomly assigned 1,595 eligible couples, dividing them evenly between the program and control groups. To estimate the overall effect of the HM programs in PACT, we estimated the difference in average outcomes between program and control group couples. These estimated effects represent the difference, on average, between what actually happened to couples who were offered HM program services and what would have happened to them if they had not been offered these services.

To estimate the effects of the programs, the team used data from three sources: (1) baseline surveys completed by both members of the couple when they applied to an HM program in PACT, (2) follow-up surveys conducted with both members of the couple about one year after they enrolled in the study, and (3) administrative employment records collected from the National Directory of New Hires (NDNH). The baseline and follow-up surveys included questions in many areas, including parenting, relationships, and economic stability. The NDNH is a national database of information about employment and earnings operated by the Office of Child Support Enforcement.


Findings from the study support further investment in HMRE programs as a means of promoting stability in the relationships of low-income families. The HM programs in PACT improved several aspects of relationship quality, co-parenting relationships, and the likelihood that couples would be married one year later. These findings indicate that HMRE programs can benefit low-income families in important ways.

Future HMRE programming and research should seek to improve HMRE approaches in ways that better meet the needs of unmarried low-income couples. Although PACT subgroup impacts were not statistically different for married and unmarried couples, the pattern of impacts by initial marital status provides some additional support for findings in the literature suggesting that HMRE programs are more effective for married couples than for unmarried couples. Taken together, results from the PACT HM study and previous studies suggest that although existing HMRE approaches can have encouraging results for low-income married couples, they are less successful for unmarried ones.

Developing more successful approaches to integrating job and career services into HMRE programs is another topic for future HMRE programming and research. The PACT HM study did not find a consistent pattern of positive impacts on earnings. Only half of couples received job and career advancement services, which might explain why the programs did not have a substantial effect in this area. Another possibility is that improving labor market success requires more intensive services than those offered as part of the HM programs in PACT. Combining job and career advancement services with HMRE services is still a relatively new idea. It might take time for programs to develop successful strategies that fully integrate these two program components and improve the job and career outcomes of participants.


Moore, Quinn, Sarah Avellar, Ankita Patnaik, Reginald Covington, and April Wu. (2018). Parents and Children Together: Effects of Two Healthy Marriage Programs for Low-Income Couples. OPRE Report Number 2018-58. Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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