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Economically disadvantaged children are more likely to grow up in unstable single-parent households and have much less access to the financial and emotional support of their noncustodial parent (typically the father). Family instability places children at risk for a number of negative outcomes and plays a large part in the growing disparities of income and opportunity in the United States. Over the past decade, the federal government and a handful of states have begun to fund voluntary marriage and relationship education programs (MRE) as a new strategy to be added to existing efforts to strengthen families, reduce poverty, and promote child well-being. MRE programs aim to teach interested couples and individuals in a group format the knowledge, attitudes, and relationship skills that research has shown to be associated with healthy, stable relationships and marriage. The government funding is thus helping low-income, racially, and ethnically diverse populations have access for the first time to the types of services which have historically been available primarily to middle-class, white populations.

This Report reviews and synthesizes the lessons emerging from evaluation research and practitioner experience to address two related questions: (a) What have we learned about the design and implementation of government-sponsored MRE programs? and (b) What do we know about the effects of these programs on participants, especially low-income populations? It begins with a summary of the key lessons that have emerged from implementation studies of MRE programs currently in the field. Next, it summarizes and synthesizes the evidence on program effects from strong evaluations conducted on the first generation of MRE programs (i.e., from the mid-seventies to the early 2000s, prior to substantial public funding). Results are then presented from a new meta-analysis of 15 evaluation studies, including three randomized control trials (many of them funded by the federal government), of second generation MRE programs serving low-income populations. The Report briefly mentions the Building Strong Families multi-site experiment which released its interim impact findings in May 2010. The conclusion summarizes the overall results to date and ends with a list of recommendations for future research. (Author abstract modified)