By: Kristin Abner, Ph.D. and Laura Arnold, Ph.D., CFLE

Kristin Abner, Ph.D., is a manager at ICF where she works on technical assistance and research projects relating to child poverty, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and work force programs.
Laura Arnold, Ph.D., is a Technical Specialist at ICF where she works on research and evaluation projects related to adolescent and family health, healthy marriages and relationships, and effective programming.


The views expressed in In Focus are exclusively those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect official positions of their employers or clients. References to materials or services in the public domain do not imply endorsement from those entities.

For November, In Focus is sharing information on ways that relationship education can be integrated into all aspects of human services– all posts are focusing on work that ICF has done as part of the National Resource Center for Healthy Marriage and Families (Resource Center). The Resource Center helps agencies develop the capacity to promote healthy relationship skills in a way that meets both their needs and those of the families they serve. As a service of the Office of Family Assistance, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Resource Center supports the integration of healthy marriage and relationship education into targeted safety-net service delivery systems as part of a comprehensive strategy to strengthen families and promote family self-sufficiency.


This post is the first in the three-part series on the work of the Resource Center, and this post in particular will focus on integrating culturally responsive healthy relationship education into existing safety-net services to strengthen rural families in poverty. Research indicates that rural families in low-income communities experience chronic stressors, such as unemployment, low wage markets, as well as lack of access to health care and nutritious food. Additionally, infrastructure challenges (e.g. poor road conditions, lack of transportation) create additional obstacles to accessing employment and safety-net services and  opportunities for educational and self-enrichment. However, rural communities are often close-knit with a strong sense of community identity, which leads to greater degrees of self-reliance and independence. Research indicates residents with strong community identity may be much more likely to assist fellow community members in their times of need. In spite of infrastructure concerns, community schools and local places of worship serve as gathering points for rural families, creating a natural support system for children and families.

Reaching families through culturally responsive healthy relationship education can alleviate pressures associated with the physical and social infrastructure of rural communities. In fact, studies have found that the negative effects of adverse experiences (substance abuse, antisocial behaviors, etc.) can be modified or changed through relationship education, specifically through integrating relationship programming into existing safety-net services.


Lessons from the Field

Individuals and families must be reached in a way that is meaningful to their cultural context. Specifically, organizations serving rural low-income populations can address some of the following common challenges experienced by safety-net service providers.


  • Minimize the “Outsider” Stigma by Partnering with Volunteers from the Community — Partnering with volunteers from the community who are known and have a shared identity with those seeking assistance can facilitate a bridge between service providers and those seeking safety-net services. This is in line with the strong sense of community and “abundant informal community resources” that are often present within these close-knit communities where community members help each other in times of need.


  • Address External Stressors in Tandem with Relational Concerns — The process of strengthening relationships is more effective as programs address external stressors in tandem with relational concerns, such as offering job training and financial skill building.


  • Use Technology to Maximize Reach of Limited Resources — Many isolated communities have access to communication technologies that can bring needed information, resources, and programming to areas that may be difficult to access physically or where there are not direct service providers. Online resources, such as trainings and webinars, provide continuing education opportunities and needed professional contacts for service providers in remote communities.


  • Seek Input from Individuals and the Community — One of the ways to provide culturally relevant safety-net services is to spend more time listening to residents’ wants and needs instead of acting on assumptions about individual needs.


Effective programming requires a multifaceted approach that combines strengthening interpersonal and coping skills that support family functioning (e.g. healthy marriage and relationship activities and responsible parenting) with pragmatic services like job readiness and financial literacy. Empowering families with the knowledge and skills to address challenges within their control can strengthen families and reduce some of the feelings of isolation and despair that prevent families from moving toward self-sufficiency.


Want to read more? Click the link for this Resource Center research-to-practice brief, which this blog was adapted from, or browse the Resource Center’s Library for more research on relationship education. The Resource Center’s Virtual Training Center also offers a number of free, research-based courses available online for both service providers and families.