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The 35 couples who have taken the 12-week Pennsylvania course since it was launched in July 2003 would probably line up on the side of getting all the help they can get. The classes are run by Community Services for Children (CSC), a nonprofit organization that oversees Head Start programs in Allentown, Pa. On Monday nights, couples convene at a Boys & Girls Club, dropping off their children with caregivers provided by the program. The moms and dads share canned soda and free dinners such as chicken, potatoes and gravy before the two instructors--Gregory Edwards, author of the program's curriculum, and a female social worker--lead discussions on finances, household chores and parenting. Faverey, a mentor for Head Start families who is trained in relationship and child-development issues, follows up by visiting each couple at home once a week. She helps them create and follow a "relationship road map"--a list of goals like buying a home or marrying within two years, and the efforts taken to achieve them. Such techniques would be useful for any couple, but there are also parts of the program specific to its target audience. Halfway through the course, for example, Edwards introduces a subject likely to go uncovered at the typical $200 weekend marriage seminar attended by middle-class couples. "When I say paternity, what comes to mind?" he asks. "Blood test," says one man. "Knowing that your child is yours," volunteers another.
To enter the course, couples must be unmarried with a child under age 1. Faverey recruits them by calling parents in CSC's Head Start programs. The group is mainly African Americans and Hispanics in their 20s and 30s, populations in which single-parent households are prevalent. While white families have an 81% chance of including a married couple, Hispanics have a 67% chance and African Americans a 46% chance. For low-income couples like the ones in the class, trading vows is often a lower priority than managing day-to-day dramas like finding housing, treating a health condition or looking for work. "When you're living in a perpetual state of crisis," says Edwards, "how do you think about an engagement ring?"