The Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) study tested a voluntary, yearlong relationship and marriage education program targeting low-income married couples from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds who had children or were expecting a child. The evaluation is being led by MDRC, in collaboration with Abt Associates and other partners, and is sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This working paper presents findings from in-depth qualitative interviews with 16 married couples who participated in the SHM study in the Bronx, New York, and Reading, Pennsylvania. The aim of this research is to shed light on two understudied populations in the field of relationship education — African-American and Latino couples — and to illuminate the strengths, needs, and experiences of these groups as they participated in the program. The findings indicate that these couples expressed a clear interest in enrolling in SHM services. They responded positively to outreach methods and messaging, noting that the program content, diverse staff, and opportunity for time alone as a couple, as well as participation supports and incentives, attracted them to the program. Couples reported deriving a number of positive benefits from participating in the program, including spending time together, adopting a more positive view of their relationships, and learning new and positive ways of communicating that they actively tried out in their daily lives. At the same time, couples began the program with, and continued to face, numerous economic and resource needs. They also had few social supports, which placed significant stress on their relationships. In addition, couples did not show interest in developing social networks with other married couples as a way to help mitigate these stresses, although program designers anticipated at the outset that this could be an avenue for strengthened relationships. Indeed, many of these couples’ needs persisted throughout their tenure in SHM, suggesting that additional supportive services may be helpful in addressing the nature and complexity of these issues. Finally, couples expressed an interest in more support on parenting, both in terms of navigating their roles as coparents and of learning strategies for addressing their children’s needs at various stages.
The paper places these findings within the literature on economically challenged African-American and Latino families and the SHM theory of change. Considerations are offered for programs that provide relationship education or similar types of services.