Can Well-Designed Interventions Help?
One-third of all births in the United States are to unmarried women, and that number is higher in some population groups. Many children of unwed couples flourish, but research shows that on average they are at greater risk than children growing up with their married biological parents of living in poverty and developing social, behavioral, and academic problems. Research also shows that most such unwed couples are romantically involved at the time of their child's birth, are interested in the well-being of their child, and hope and expect to marry each other. Nevertheless, in the absence of any intervention, these aspirations and hopes for a stable relationship and marriage are seldom realized.
The Building Strong Families (BSF) project is an important opportunity to learn whether well-designed interventions can help couples fulfill their aspirations for a healthy relationship, marriage, and a strong family. The project is testing interventions with interested low-income, unwed couples, beginning during pregnancy or around the time of their child’s birth. The programs are designed to help such couples strengthen their relationships, achieve healthy marriages if that is the path they choose, and thus enhance child and family well-being. The programs are designed around two main components. First, the programs educate on the skills evident in the relationships of successful couples; this focus is the distinctive component of the BSF project. Second, BSF programs provide a variety of family support services that could help low-income couples sustain healthy relationships. These services can aim, for example, to improve parenting skills or address problems with employment, health and mental health, or substance abuse.
Although BSF programs support couples' aspirations for marriage, the services are sensitive to the interests of couples and the choices they make. For couples inclined toward marriage, the programs can aim to help them achieve that goal. For participants who do not marry, the programs still focus on helping them develop and maintain a positive, healthy relationship, as a couple and as parents, to enhance their child’s development.
Creating BSF programs requires collaboration across agencies and interested parties. Experts in domestic violence and substance abuse, for example, are important partners to ensure that programs identify couples with such problems and deal with those issues in ways that make safety the first priority.
The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has contracted with Mathematica and its partners to help develop such programs and determine their effectiveness. The BSF project addresses the following key questions:
- Foundation: What underlying conditions, preparation, resources, and context make it possible to implement programs that focus on promoting healthy marriage for a target population of low-income unwed couples with children? On what theories of behavior and family well-being do the programs rest? What types of organizations are well suited to operating such programs?
- Operation: What are the important issues and challenges in designing, implementing, and operating programs, and what lessons can be drawn from the program experience? What services are included, and how do they complement existing programs for low-income families?
- Participation: Who participates and for how long? What services do they receive? How does participation differ for subgroups?
- Impacts: How do BSF programs affect couples’ attitudes and expectations about marriage, the quality and stability of their relationships, and whether they marry? What effects are found on parents and their relationships with their children, and the well-being and development of children? Which program designs work best?
Components of the Project
The BSF project, which will run from 2002 to 2013, entails
three major components:
- Developing Programs and Selecting Evaluation Sites. An initial period was devoted to ensuring a strong program base for evaluation. Mathematica and its evaluation partners gathered information from experts and existing programs on strategies to promote healthy marriages. We used that guidance to formulate program models, disseminate information about them, and reach out to agencies and organizations that could potentially operate such programs. We provided technical assistance resources to help interested agencies form and strengthen critical partnerships, develop and refine their program ideas, and implement them. Well-designed programs that made good implementation progress were then monitored for a pilot operations period and eight sites were chosen for the evaluation.
- Documentation and Analysis of Program Implementation. The evaluation team has monitored and reported on how BSF sites operate. Early reports profiled program designs. Case studies were conducted based on interviews and focus groups with program staff and participants and data from program management information system files. These studies documented and assessed how BSF programs were formed, identified factors that affected their implementation experiences, and gleaned lessons for the future about implementing similar programs.
- Impact Analysis. In each site, couples in the target population who were interested in the program were randomly assigned to the program or a control group. Mathematica conducted follow-up surveys with both groups. A first survey was conducted about 15 months after each couple’s enrollment in the evaluation, and a second follow-up was conducted around the time that each couple’s child reached 3 years of age. The evaluation team estimated program impacts on mother-father relationships, family structure, fathers' involvement in child rearing, parent-child relationships and the home environment, family functioning, child well-being and development, and parental well-being.