- The PACT study shows that relationship education programs can have modest but positive effects for low-income couples. Tweet This
- A new study strengthens the case for policymakers to include relationship education as an additional tool to help disadvantaged couples create stronger families. Tweet This
I have blogged several times about the debate over the effectiveness of social policies to promote relationship education (RE) programs designed to help disadvantaged individuals and lower-income couples form and sustain healthy relationships and strong marriages (see my IFS blogs here and here and here and here). My reading of the evidence to date is mixed, modest, but hopeful.1 I think these policies and programs are showing some potential2 and that we need to give the research a few more years to provide a solid view of whether they can be a part of our social policy portfolio to help lower-income individuals and couples form and sustain strong families and reduce poverty.
Other scholars, however, have disagreed with my guarded optimism.3 For the most part, these scholars have based their pessimism on two, large-scale, rigorous studies that showed no or very small effects. The Building Strong Families study of RE programs to help lower-income unmarried parents strengthen their relationships showed few positive effects, although there was an important, positive family stability effect at the Oklahoma site of the study three years after the program.4 And a reanalysis of the Building Strong Families data by the distinguished sociologist Paul Amato did show more positive short-term results for the most disadvantaged couples in the study.5 A parallel study—Supporting Healthy Marriages—evaluated the effectiveness of RE programs for lower-income married couples. This study found a lot of statistically significant positive effects, but they were small in magnitude.6 Obviously, we could use more data to inform the debate about this policy of support for RE programs.
Well, now we have more data. The Administration for Children and Families (ACF) just released the results of the Parents and Children Together (PACT) study. ACF has funded the most rigorous evaluation work on the effectiveness of RE programs. This study reports a large, extensive evaluation of two RE programs7 in New York City (about 1,000 couples) and El Paso, Texas (about 600 couples). The RE programs covered pretty standard topics with participants receiving, on average, about 14-15 hours of instruction. Most couples were economically stressed and had limited education. About 60% of couples were married and half had been together for five or more years. Most were Latino (76%), with 10% African Americans. The researchers followed the couples for about one year after the program to assess the program effects.
Have we improved with these RE programs since the Building Strong Families and Supporting Healthy Marriage studies? Here’s what the researchers found. (A longer summary of these findings can be found here.)
Compared to the no-treatment control group couples:
- PACT couples reported somewhat greater (statistically significantly) relationship commitment one year after the program. This was driven mostly by improvements in commitment among those who were not married when they began the program.
- PACT couples reported slightly more (statistically significantly) relationship warmth, support, affection, and friendship one year after the program. These differences were driven primarily by couples who were married at the beginning of the program.
- PACT couples reported slightly less (statistically significantly) destructive conflict behavior one year after the program. Again, this difference was driven primarily by couples who were married at the beginning of the program. The slight difference in constructive conflict behavior (e.g., use of humor) was too small to be statistically significant.
- Perhaps related to less destructive conflict behavior, PACT women experienced significantly less physical assault (e.g., punching, choking, kicking) from their partner (5% vs. 8%).
- More PACT couples were married one year after the program (63% vs. 59%), a statistically significant difference. This was more about married couples staying married, however, than unmarried couples getting married. In fact, the biggest effect in the entire study was for marital status for those who were married at the beginning of the program.
- PACT couples reported somewhat higher (statistically significant) levels of effective co-parenting behavior one year after the program.
- PACT women reported somewhat lower (statistically significant) levels of depressive symptoms. The difference was not significant for men, however.
Note that most of these effects, though statistically significant, were fairly small (with effect sizes between .07 to .14). The magnitude of these effects are comparable to effects found in many other evaluation studies of other social welfare polices (if they find effects at all) and they were a little larger than what was found in the Supporting Healthy Marriages study. There were two effects in this study, however, that were considerably larger: reduced percentage of physical assault (-.30) and increased marital stability for those married at the beginning of the study (.34).
What Have We Learned?
First, I was impressed that they found greater levels of commitment among those couples who participated in the RE programs, even though the couples that participated were pretty committed already (average 9 on a 10-point scale). Almost 60% were married and, on average, the couples had been together five years. Increases in commitment came primarily from unmarried couples. I think that commitment is a key target for RE programs. It takes time for couples to implement newly learned skills effectively, so greater commitment to their relationship can mean more time to keep working on it and greater stability for children in the family.
I was even more impressed that there was an effect on marital status; fewer married couples were divorced about a year later as a result of participating in the program. I think this is the second rigorous study to find that RE can reduce the chances of divorce for married couples.8 Again, family stability is such a crucial outcome for these programs, so this is an important finding to celebrate.
It was interesting that these programs worked better for couples who were already married. This finding has surfaced several times in the body of research. I think we have a lot more to learn to be able to really make a difference for unmarried couples in these RE programs. The field needs to improve here. Of course, it may be that RE programs just struggle to help couples who are less committed to their future together. That would be important to know, too.
Nevertheless, these PACT findings will be a shot in the arm for the hard work that relationship educators are doing in the field. The rigorous study shows that these programs can have positive effects, albeit fairly modest ones, for low-income couples. Also, the study will strengthen the case for policymakers to include RE as an additional tool to help disadvantaged couples create stronger families and achieve their relationship aspirations. The findings for reduced physical violence and greater marital stability, too, will help policymakers understand the merits of supporting RE.
I admit that I felt anxious awaiting the results of the PACT evaluation. A finding of “no effect” would make it harder to defend policy-level support for relationship education. Fortunately, the results are good news for the RE field, and for lower-income families! No doubt, the debate about the merits of this policy will continue, but this new study challenges some scholars’ assertions that these kinds of programs don’t really help lower-income couples.
Another set of important, ACF-funded studies of RE programs will ripen in a couple of years, and I look forward to seeing the results. I appreciate ACF’s on-going commitment to rigorously study the effectiveness of these programs and the public policy to support them.
Alan J. Hawkins is a Co-Chair of the Utah Marriage Commission and Camilla E. Kimball Professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
1. Hawkins, A. J., & Erickson, S. E. (2014). Is couple and relationship education effective for lower income participants? A meta-analytic study. Journal of Family Psychology, 29, 59-68.
2. Hawkins, A. J., Amato, P. R., & Kinghorn, A. (2013). Are government-supported healthy marriage initiatives affecting family demographics? A state-level analysis. Family Relations, 62, 501-513.
3. For instance, see, Randles, J. M. (2017). Proposing prosperity? Marriage education policy and inequality in AmericaNew York: Columbia University; Heath, M. (2012). One marriage under God: The campaign to promote marriage in America. New York University; Lee, G. R. (2015). The limits of marriage: Why getting everyone married won’t solve all our problems. Lanham, MD: Lexington; Trail, T. E., & Karney, B. R. (2012). What’s (not) wrong with low-income marriages. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74, 413–427; Huston, T. L., & Melz, H. (2004). The case for (promoting) marriage: The devil is in the details. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66, 943–948;
4. Wood, R. G., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Killewald, A. (2014). The long-term effects of Building Strong Families: A program for unmarried parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 446–463.
5. Amato, P. R. (2014). Does social and economic disadvantage moderate the effects of relationship education on unwed couples? An analysis of data from the 15-month Building Strong Families evaluation. Family Relations, 63, 343-355.
6. Lundquist, E., Hsueh, J., Lowenstein, A., Faucetta, K., Gubits, D., Michalopoulos, C., & Knox, V. (2014). A family-strengthening program for low-income families: Final impacts from the Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation. OPRE Report 2013-49A. Washington, D.C.: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
7. The PACT study also evaluated 6 responsible fatherhood program sites. A summary of those findings can be found here.
8. The other study to show this was: Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., Loew, B. A., Allen, E. S., Carter, S., Osborne, L. J., Prentice, D., & Markman, H. J. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of relationship education in the U.S. Army: 2-year outcomes. Family Relations, 63, 482-495.