urban institute nonprofit social and economic policy research

Service Delivery and Evaluation Design Options for Strengthening and Promoting Healthy Marriages

Investigation of Programs to Strengthen and Support Healthy Marriages

Read complete document: PDF

PrintPrint this page
Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share on Digg Share on Reddit
| Email this pageE-mail
Document date: February 11, 2005
Released online: February 11, 2005

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Family structure in the United States changed rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. The two-parent family norm has been increasingly replaced by a wide variety of family forms. In 2001, 69 percent of children lived in two-parent families, down from 77 percent in 1980 (Federal Interagency on Child and Family Statistics, 2002). Divorce is common. About half of all recent first marriages are expected to end in divorce (Ooms, 2002). One-third of all births are out-of-wedlock. And couples opting to cohabitate rather than marry have become an increasingly common phenomenon. Forty percent of non-marital births occur within cohabiting unions rather than marriages (Bumpass & Lu, 2000).

The decline of marriage has been particularly evident in poor communities. A recent report using data from the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG) found that first marriages are more likely to disrupt in communities with higher male unemployment, lower median family income, higher poverty and higher receipt of welfare. Similarly, remarriage is less likely for divorced women who live in these communities (Bramlett and Mosher, 2002).

There are different theories for why these patterns occur in low-income communities. For African-American women, researchers point to three threats that reduce the pool of "marriageable men": high unemployment, incarceration, and death rates for African-American men (Wilson, 1996; Western and McLanahan, 2000; South and Lloyd, 1992). Some also suggest that welfare programs provide a disincentive for women to marry. These theories contend that a mother may derive more benefits from collecting welfare than marrying a man with a low-paying job (Becker 1991).

A vast accumulation of research suggests that children do not fare as well in these alternative family structure forms as children living with two married biological parents. Studies have demonstrated that children growing up in single-parent families experience worse outcomes than children growing up in two-parent families (Acs & Nelson, 2001; Amato & Keith, 1991; McLanahan & Sandefeur, 1994; Wu & Martinson, 1993). Research has also shown that divorce can have negative effects on children's well-being (Amato, 1993; Amato & Keith, 1991; Chase-Lansdale, Cherlin, & Kiernan, 1995; Chase-Lansdale & Hetherington, 1990). Even when parents remarry, a synthesis of the research suggests that this does not appear to improve outcomes (Amato, 1993).


In this societal context, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) included four purposes, three of which were related to marriage and family formation: states were urged to promote marriage, reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing, and encourage and support two-parent families (P.L. 104-193). This legislation made welfare, now Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), money available to states to develop programs to encourage marriage among low-income families. The current administration seeks to implement interventions that strengthen healthy marriages with the hope of ultimately improving child well-being; in so doing, it has proposed an increase in the amount of TANF funding available for programs to support healthy marriages. Some states and providers are poised to develop and provide these services with the reauthorization of PRWORA on the horizon this year.

As efforts to implement marriage programs move forward, policymakers and program developers need information about the types of services and programs that currently exist, how they operate in a variety of settings, and how other providers might implement them in the future. To address these needs, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) built a long-term, large-scale research agenda to approach these questions from several angles. It has undertaken a variety of projects that utilize various approaches toward marriage promotion and assess different populations. Specifically, the Building Strong Families (BSF) project will assess whether interventions targeted at unwed couples around the time of a child's birth can help couples achieve a healthy marriage, and in turn positively affect the development of the child. The Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) project will examine whether and how marriage programs for low-income married couples can improve couple relationships and child well-being. The Community Healthy Marriage Initiative (CHMI) evaluation project will examine how community-level initiatives can provide support for marriage and affect attitudes regarding marriage across entire communities.

As part of this agenda, in September of 2002, ACF contracted with the Urban Institute to explore service delivery settings and evaluation design options to strengthen and promote healthy marriages. This project commissioned a team of researchers to characterize the programmatic and research landscape of marriage interventions and provide ACF with an assessment of potential evaluation issues to consider when planning larger scale evaluations. The project was focused primarily on the context in which interventions take place and less on the interventions themselves. For example, how are programs implemented within different settings and how does the setting affect funding, staffing, service delivery, and client recruitment and retention? ACF also aimed to understand more about ways in which marriage interventions might serve low-income couples and particular issues surrounding program implementation to reach and serve this population.

The project was designed to collect information on the range of programs currently available to strengthen healthy marriages. We considered both current and "potential" programs, defined as programs that currently serve a population of interest but do not offer marriage services. We conducted a total of 58 telephone discussions with current and potential program providers and visited five geographic areas with multiple programs. Through theses calls and visits, we examined the service delivery setting, specifically the types of services provided, target groups served, the size of the program, funding mechanisms, and collaborating organizations. We also convened a meeting in Washington, D.C. of key stakeholders in the field of marriage programming and service delivery. The meeting brought together experts on both different types of settings in which programs operate as well as experts on particular interventions, minority populations, and program evaluation.

Prior to our discussions with providers, we developed a diagram to organize our understanding of the different aspects of the programs we would study (see figure 1). We define a "marriage program" as including several components: environment, setting, intervention, and clients. The environment includes all federal, state and local policies, public and private initiatives, funding streams that could support a marriage program, and the cultural and socio-political climate. The setting is the physical location where the program is delivered and generally where the program operates. The client population includes the person(s) the program is serving. The intervention is a treatment involving some face-to-face interaction with the client population. We excluded models that include solely a media campaign, video or book, or Internet training program. The intervention includes topics or subject areas, such as communication, problem solving, or expectations. The intervention is delivered using a particular format, which includes the method (didactic or interactive), group size (individual, couple or group), and dosage (number of hours spent receiving treatment). The goals of some interventions may be solely focused on marriages or relationships, while others may have several goals, one of which is to support healthy marriages or relationships.

We selected programs to contact to attain sufficient variation in setting type and, to a lesser extent, to ensure that we had feasible geographical clustering to allow for site visits. We identified seven setting types of interest: public health, mental health, community centers, social service, education, religious, and in-home settings. Table 1 provides definitions of the setting types and the number of programs we called and visited from each category.

Upon completion of our discussions with providers, we coded our notes using the Nudist software for qualitative data analysis. After having attained sufficient inter-rater reliability, two researchers coded the notes. We coded findings on key issues related to environment, setting, intervention, and clients. Using the software, we then produced a compilation of notes on those particular topics. We analyzed these compilations for this report.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net

Usage and reprints: Most publications may be downloaded free of charge from the web site and may be used and copies made for research, academic, policy or other non-commercial purposes. Proper attribution is required. Posting UI research papers on other websites is permitted subject to prior approval from the Urban Institute—contact publicaffairs@urban.org.

If you are unable to access or print the PDF document please contact us or call the Publications Office at (202) 261-5687.

Disclaimer: The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Copyright of the written materials contained within the Urban Institute website is owned or controlled by the Urban Institute.

Email this Page