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Relationship, marriage classes can help families, especially low-income families — if they know about them

Published: Friday, Dec. 28 2012 7:35 p.m. MST

The move to offer such education well in advance of forming relationships — to teach relationship skills when people are young and not part of a couple, for example — has been a shift that has placed education efforts in jails and prisons, welfare programs and classrooms.

There are few studies on the topic, and most that exist haven't been able to look at long-term impacts, but it appears the biggest gains are among the low-income and minority populations, Ooms said. "They get the most out of the classes, if you can figure out how to get them there," she said, noting they have barriers like transportation and work schedules that sometimes make it difficult.

"I've known a lot of skeptical policy wonks who thought this was squishy stuff, but when they visited programs like one in Oklahoma (a large demonstration project on which she consults), they were convinced. 'I wish I'd had this for my marriage,'" she said.

"There aren't very many of these programs and most communities don't have them," Ooms said. "Yet even small positive outcomes save a huge amount of money" that is otherwise the cost of disintegrating families.

The impact reaches across levels, from reducing need for social-welfare programs to helping people choose better relationships and maintain them. Still, the researchers note, there is much studying on the topic to be done. Programs are not uniform in their value and many of them have attracted and perhaps even targeted audiences that don't benefit the most from them. For instance, the first generation of marriage and relationship education program evaluation research found moderate positive effects, but were focused almost exclusively on middle-class white couples, according to findings of a study in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2009.

A controlled trial called "The Supporting Healthy Marriage" program studied low-income married couples in marriage education and support services and reported small, but significant positive effects even a year after the program. Hawkins and Ooms said that emerging research is also showing potential for relationship education services to help at-risk youths, low-income cohabiting young adults and couples in step families, though more research is needed. And they noted that more financial investment in such programs "was associated with small but significant effects on family stability and child poverty.

"Overall, the results were mixed, but we believe they are encouraging," they wrote in the report. "Important limitations and gaps in studies of marriage and relationship interventions remain. For example, in the future we need to collect long-term data on family stability, health and child outcomes to measure changes in attitudes, parenting behavior and spillover effects of these services into the workplace."

EMAIL: lois@desnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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