Family fragility in the US, especially among unmarried, impoverished parents is of increasing concern to policymakers, researchers, and practitioners involved with promoting family stability and positive outcomes for children. Federal initiatives such as the Welfare-to-Work Program and the Health Marriage Initiative have fallen far short of their goals of fostering economic mobility and intact families.

Between 2007 and 2011 the Strong Couples-Strong Children (SC – SC) project enrolled 726 low-income, expecting and new parents into a relationship strengthening program. Participants received a manualized group intervention focusing on communication and problem-solving skills supplemented with family-care wrap-around services. While beneficial treatment effects were found on six of ten critical outcomes variables, families continued to experience chronic economic hardships.

In focus groups conducted in the final year, participants conveyed multiple strengths, including a strong commitment to their families and bettering their lives through gainful employment. They also reported, however, that constant worry about finances had erosive effects on their self-esteem, (particularly males) and partner relationships. Barriers to employment varied by race and gender as did ideas on needed resources. Similarities and differences in strengths and challenges were subsequently supported by survey data. Survey data also refute negative family stereotypes. On average couples were together for 3.5 years; 79% were cohabitating and 98% planned to have father’s name on the birth certificate.

Survey data supplemented by focus group interviews suggest future directions. Efforts to support disadvantaged families must focus on not only enhancing relational assets but also human capital particularly by supporting education, employment aspirations and strong entrepreneurial desires. Given differences in perceptions of needed resources, future programs need to be both tailored and comprehensive.

Key Take Away Points

  1. Parents participating in focus groups 6-18 months following a relationship strengthening program were experiencing a high level of individual and interpersonal stress related to their financial circumstances despite having made gains in their partner relationship.
  2. Unless human and economic capital needs are addressed in Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood Initiative relationship education programs, couples will continue to defer marriage.
  3. More emphasis needs to be placed on encouraging and supporting entrepreneurial desires among low-income parents.
  4. Additional focus on basic conditions needed for human and economic capital gains (e.g., child care, reliable transportation, steady work hours) could make the difference between economic stagnation and mobility.
  5. Relationship education for at-risk diverse population should be a viewed as a complement to other family strengthening efforts rather than as a stand-alone poverty antidote.

Author Biography

Anne Jones is a clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was the principal investigator of the community intervention study Strong Couples - Strong Children described in this discussed in this paper. Her main professional interest is in strengthening couples and families as a means of promoting positive outcomes for both adults and their children. She teaches direct practice courses that focus on interventions with individual, couples and families. She has a MSW degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a PhD from Simmons college. Pajarita Charles, PhD is a researcher with the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention at the School of Social Service Administration (SSA) at The University of Chicago and Project Director of the California Youth Transitions to Adulthood Study (CalYOUTH). Dr. Charles’ primary interest is in preventive intervention research and social welfare policies that affect disadvantaged children and families. Her current research focuses on the intersection of family structure, father involvement, and child and family wellbeing. Dr. Charles is an adjunct instructor at SSA and teaches Evaluation of Social Welfare Policies and Programs at the graduate level. Prior to joining SSA, Dr. Charles was a Research Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Charles holds M.S.W. and M.P.A. degrees from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


The program described in this article was supported by a grant from the Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, awarded to the first author (90FE0094). Opinions, findings, conclusion, and/or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the grantor. We would like to acknowledge and thank our participating SC - SC parents, the Durham County Health Department and the Durham County Cooperative Extension. We especially thank Erline Harvin, SC -SC project manager and Diane Wyatt, UNC-Chapel Hill, School of Social Work for her editorial support.