The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 included the objective of encouraging formation and maintenance of two-parent families. The Healthy Marriage Initiative, funded by the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, supported this goal and emphasized provision of services to low-income populations, thus bringing relationship issues of economically disadvantaged unmarried parents to researchers' attention. Researchers found that this population expressed interest in learning skills for improving relationships but that establishing a foundation for marriage was not necessarily an appropriate goal (Ooms & Wilson, 2004). Marriage educators consulted domestic violence and poverty experts in developing Within My Reach (WMR), a curriculum for low-income individuals and unmarried parents that incorporates techniques from PREP, an empirically based couple's relationship education program (Markman et al., 1993). This is a process study of the implementation of WMR as a component of orientation for TANF (“welfare”) recipients; its purposes are to describe the delivery of the curriculum; to assess the fit between the content of WMR and participating TANF clients' actual relationship situations and concerns; and to ascertain the degree to which participants find WMR concepts and skills useful.
The researcher observed WMR classes in three TANF sites and conducted semi-structured in-depth interviews with twenty-two TANF clients who participated in these or similar classes. Eleven of the clients were interviewed after completing WMR. Following a case-oriented strategy (Miles & Huberman, 1994), transcriptions of interviews were organized into profiles for each participant including family and intimate relationship history, current relationship status, intimate relationship concerns and goals, and examples of recent communications. The WMR Instructor's Manual and field notes from class observation were analyzed to identify assumptions about participants' histories, current situations, and likelihood to engage in, and benefit from, reflection on relationships and learning communication skills. Participant profiles were compared with the curriculum assumptions and content to assess the fit between participants' situations and concerns and the topics and skills of WMR. Repeated interviews with six participants post-WMR focused on recent communications which were then compared with communication described in initial interviews and analyzed for evidence of influence of WMR. Field notes were analyzed to produce an ethnographic narrative (Berg, 2004) describing classroom environments, instructor-participant interactions, and evidence of participants' engagement.
The ethnographic narrative and comparison of participant profiles with WMR's curriculum provide evidence of a good fit between WMR content and participants' situations and concerns. In post-WMR interviews with eleven participants, each reported finding at least one concept in the program valuable. Nine of the eleven described one or more ways in which they had utilized awareness or skill gained from WMR including examples with children, extended family members, and former as well as current partners.
Conclusions and Implications:
The study suggests that WMR effectively adapts core elements of PREP to respond to situations of low-income unmarried individuals including TANF recipients. It responds to concerns of both welfare reformers and women's advocates in providing skills for continuing promising relationships and for ending dangerous or otherwise undesirable ones.