WWS' Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study: "King's Dream Deferred for Children of Unmarried Parents"

Jan. 16, 2011

As the nation prepares to celebrate the life and achievements of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., work by researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities shows King's dream deferred for millions of children. The reason? A significant increase over the past 40 years in the percentage of children born into fragile families, defined as couples who are unmarried when their children are born. Almost three-fourths of African American children and just over half of Hispanic children are born to unmarried parents, and whites are quickly catching up -- so much so that the proportion of white children born to unmarried parents today (29 percent) is actually higher than it was for blacks in the mid-1960s when Daniel Moynihan released his report on the black family that voiced concern about this issue.

Research shows that children growing up in fragile families face greater risks to their well-being and future opportunities than children growing up in more traditional families. Simply put, family formation and the associated resources or lack thereof, are creating a new divide among children.

The evidence suggests that parents’ marital status at the time of their child’s birth is a good predictor of longer-term family stability and complexity, both of which influence children’s wellbeing,” said Sara McLanahan, one of the most authoritative voices on this subject and one of the principal investigators of a seminal study focused on these families. "But as the number of children born to unmarried parents has increased, so has their exposure to poverty and family instability.”

According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study: 

  • Unmarried parents are much more disadvantaged than married parents. Unmarried parents are more likely to have started parenting in their teens; are more likely to be poor; are more likely to suffer from depression; and are disproportionately African American or Hispanic. One particular finding is especially jarring – nearly 40 percent of fathers who have children outside of marriage have been incarcerated at some point in their lifetime, and this number is likely an undercount.
  • A large proportion of unmarried parents are in “marriage-like” relationships at the time of their child’s birth. One half of unmarried parents are living together at the time of their child’s birth, and another 32 percent are in ‘visiting unions,’ defined as romantically involved but living apart. This is contrary to the image we have of the “single mother,” giving birth outside of marriage alone with no father by her side.
  • Relationships are unstable. Despite their clearly stated high hopes that they will marry eventually, most unmarried parents do not stay together. The result is that many children experience high levels of instability and complexity. Only 35 percent of unmarried couples are still living together five years after the birth of their child; given the young age of these parents, those who do not stay together go on to re-partner, exposing their children to increasing numbers of short-term parent figures and half-siblings.
  • Children are doing poorly. Children born to unmarried parents do not fare as well as children born to married parents; single mothers and mothers in unstable partnerships engage in harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities with their children than stably married mothers.
“What this suggests,” said McLanahan, “is that we must start to think very seriously about policy reforms that will reverse this trend. If these cohabiting couples were long-term, stable relationships as they are in Scandinavian countries, for example, we would not be concerned. But in the United States they are fragile, and children are suffering as a consequence.”

As Dr. King said, “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned.” While the country has made critical gains in this area, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that these gains are not lost on our children.

A fact sheet on the findings is available, and more information may be found at the Fragile Families website.

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study has been following approximately 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000, including a large oversample of children born to unmarried parents. The study is a joint effort of Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Center for Health and Wellbeing, Columbia University’s Columbia Population Research Center and the National Center for Children and Families. The study is funded through grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD) and a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies.