Hispanic Couples in the Supporting Healthy Marriage Evaluation: How Representative are they of Low-Income Hispanic Couples in the United States?

The quality and dynamics of mother-father couple relationships shape the experiences and well-being of the entire family. A large body of research, for example, suggests that children thrive when their parents are in stable, high-quality, low-conflict relationships. Despite the size and growth of the Latino population in the United States, little is known about the relationship dynamics of Hispanic couples or how they might differ from other racial and ethnic groups. Few studies have examined how Hispanic couples interact and communicate with one another, how they resolve arguments or disagreements, or the relevance of these factors for their family’s well-being.

One reason that research on this topic is lacking is that data on these issues are scarce for the U.S. Hispanic population. A recent review of more than 20 (primarily national) data sets revealed that only one—the Supporting Healthy Marriage (SHM) Evaluation data set—includes both a large enough sample of Latinos and information on an array of domains of family life. This data set therefore has the potential to address critical gaps in knowledge about Hispanic family life. Still, the SHM evaluation data set, while rich in information on married couples and their children, is a convenience sample of couples that may not represent the general population of Hispanic couples in the United States.

This brief assesses the extent to which Hispanic participants in the SHM evaluation data set represent the broader U.S. population of Hispanic couples. Specifically, we examine how representative the study’s Latino couples are of low-income Hispanic couples with children (under age 18) in the general population by comparing them on socio-demographic characteristics such as age, education, number and ages of children, earnings, and so forth. We also assess how Latino couples in SHM compare to the broader population of low-income Hispanic couples across multiple domains of marital quality and mental health. Through these analyses, we highlight the SHM dataset’s potential for generating knowledge about Hispanic families, and identify potential limitations.

This brief relies on data from the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (Fragile Families). The ACS provides a national benchmark against which to assess the representativeness of SHM couples in terms of their demographic, employment, economic, and family characteristics, as well as their human capital. In turn, the Fragile Families data set contains a sample of families that are low-income and have young children. Unlike the ACS, Fragile Families collected data on couples’ relationship dynamics and well-being that can be used to compare Hispanic couples in the two data sets on those dimensions.

Key Findings

Compared with low-income Hispanic couples in the general population (ACS sample), Hispanic couples in the SHM evaluation data set:

• Were younger, had been married for fewer years, and had fewer and younger children.
• Were less likely to be immigrants. More than half of the Hispanic couples in SHM had at least one partner who was born in the United States.
• Had more human capital. Hispanic couples in SHM were more likely to report speaking English well and to have at least a high school education.
• Had higher earnings but lower labor force participation.

In addition, relative to low-income Hispanic couples in the Fragile Families study, Hispanic couples in SHM:

• Were less likely to express their love and affection often and to feel satisfied with the way they handled relationship problems; they were also more likely to argue frequently.

• Were more likely to be sad or have a substance abuse problem.

The differences across samples limit the ability to use the SHM data set to make generalizable statements about Hispanic family life in the United States. Nevertheless, the large sample size of Hispanics in SHM and the breadth of data collected (as well as the lack of current alternatives) allow for critical exploratory research on the well-being of Hispanic families. Our findings have several implications for programs and research:

• National data are needed on couples’ relationships and family dynamics.

• National data collection efforts should also include questions that can represent the diversity of Hispanic family life to deepen the field’s understanding of the varied experiences of Hispanic families in the United States (e.g., nativity, country of origin, educational attainment).

• Programs that target Hispanic couples like those who participated in the Supporting Healthy Marriage evaluation should develop new strategies to enroll segments of the Hispanic population that were not well-represented in the SHM evaluation. In particular, additional efforts are needed to recruit couples in which both partners are foreign-born, who have limited English proficiency, and who have low levels of education.

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