Foundations for Strong Families 101. Introduction


Family and finances are key sources of strength and self-sufficiency that interact in the lives of most Americans. However, many face ongoing problems and stress because of family and financial instability, especially in these uncertain times. Families in low-income communities may face greater difficulties in accessing resources to build strong finances and healthy relationships due to limited social networks, skills, and opportunities.

In the last decade, a variety of federal efforts were pioneered to build financial literacy skills among lower income populations and across the entire citizenry. These range from the Assets for Independence program at the U.S Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which combines matched savings and financial education to foster asset development in low income families, to the Money Smart Financial Education Program at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which provides financial education resources free of charge.

At the same time, growing recognition of the important roles that family and marital relationships play in the overall well-being of children, families, and communities—including financial well-being—has led to new HHS grants that provide skill-building and learning opportunities that will help foster healthy, stable family relationships and marriages. Some of these community-based grant programs, which target marital, family, and relationship stability, include a focus on improving communication about money issues and on encouraging joint financial planning. Many also help families connect with support services that address other barriers to relationship stability.

The Case for Collaboration

“The family unit has long been the basis of economic activity: the stronger the family, the stronger the society and greater its achievements. Combining asset-building strategies with family-strengthening education leverages the potential of both. While these types of services typically are delivered separately, they are deeply intertwined. Asset-building projects bolster family economic stability through economic and consumer education, credit counseling and repair, and by helping clients save money to accumulate economic assets over the long term. Family strengthening projects, including Healthy Marriage projects, impart concrete skills to better communicate and manage and resolve conflicts. The result is more success in every area of family and married life.”

Excerpted Building Assets, Building Stronger Families, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Document is online at:

Research indicates that there is an interaction between interpersonal relationships and economic well-being.1 There is a well-documented correlation between marriage and better economic status; over time, married people experience a greater accumulation of wealth than do single or divorced people.2 Disagreements over money are often a major source of conflict between spouses and within families.3 Instability, be it familial or financial, can create problems and stress across income groups, but those in lower income categories are often most adversely affected.4 Finally, despite evidence that marriage can improve economic circumstances, preliminary evidence suggests that many low-income couples consider a certain level of financial stability as a precondition for marriage.5 These few examples are just the beginning; given the complexity of human relationships, both with other people and with economic systems, we clearly have more to learn about the interactions among family, marriage, income, and assets.

This is the first of two briefs that examine the interplay between education and skills-building programming for lower income individuals and families in the areas of marriage and relationships, financial literacy, and asset development. These briefs are intended for practitioners working in any of these areas and interested in learning more about the other fields and potential collaboration or idea exchange. We hope that greater understanding of the similarities, differences, and interdependencies between relationships with a partner or spouse and one’s finances will better equip educators from those fields for the task of improving the stability of American families.

This brief provides an overview of existing efforts, documenting the fundamental concepts and skills that are taught by both marriage and financial educators to help low-income families move toward stability. We begin by defining each set of programs and its objectives and main tools. Then, we discuss the common ground between the specific objectives and tools and the ways that each community can offer additional tools to the other. We highlight opportunities for collaboration between the marriage and family-strengthening initiatives and the financial literacy and asset-building initiatives, and we conclude with some lessons for building the foundations of family and financial stability. Throughout this brief there are green boxes highlighting examples of existing program curricula or related literature, chosen not to indicate an endorsement or preferred status, but instead selected to show the diversity and range of content available. There are also blue boxes that provide additional information on existing programs or suggestions from other practitioners.

In many ways, a relationship with money is akin to an intimate relationship. Learning how to make good decisions and choices in relationships involves emotion and trust, while balancing immediate and long-term planning horizons is complicated. Marriage and relationship skills educators may be able to offer ways to address the emotional context of financial decisions, and they may benefit from understanding the broad array of tools available for assisting families in financial difficulty. Financial educators may be able to give guidance to families experiencing financial crises and expand their understanding of emotional issues that couples face. In any case, family problems are a significant threat to financial stability, and financial problems are a significant threat to family stability, so let us begin the conversation.

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