Last week, news at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School mentioned work by researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities, which suggests that Martin Luther King’s dream is 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%) is actually higher than it was for blacks in the mid-1960’s 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 groundbreaking 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% 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% 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% 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,” says 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 of the findings can be found at:
Additional findings are highlighted in The Future of Childen’s volume on Fragile Families.
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 on Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Center for Health and Wellbeing and 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.
Kids that come from broken families are a pitiful sight. Its not their fault that they are borned into these families. All kids deserve a chance to be taught good and given a proper education but parents who are no role models contribute to the problems of these kids and them on until they are married and pass on these problems to their kids and so forth. Its like chain reaction.
Policy reforms? Wouldn’t that be violating people’s freedoms? In my opinion this issue comes down to the degradation of morality in today’s society which is largely fueled by the media. Nobody seems to care.
The marital status of parents during child birth definitely has an effect on the emotional aspect of the child. Money also has an effect,no doubt, but the emotional aspect is stronger.
I imagine that if you look at children born outside of marriage to parents in the upper income groups that they do quite well. What we’re really looking at are the effects of discrimination, lack of educational opportunities, and mass incarceration. Move away from this desire to somehow increase and stabilize marriage and towards a desire to increase economic opportunities.
Yes – this is true. As noted by the Pew Research Center, those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum are as likely as others to want to marry, but they place a higher premium on economic security as a condition for marriage.
As noted in our Fragile Families volume, racial and ethnic differences in the prevalence of fragile families are substantial as are
differences in the socioeconomic well-being of the racial and ethnic groups themselves. The effects of mass incarceration have been concentrated among those who are most likely to
form fragile families: poor and minority men and women with little schooling. Imprisonment
diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, contributes to family breakup, and adds to the deficits of poor children.
It is certainly important that we address economic opportunities, discrimination, and mass incarceration. However, it is also important to acknowledge that family stability and the increased resources associated with two-parent families impact child well-being. Helping young couples at the time of their child’s birth to improve their relationship and parenting skills, with the hope of increasing their two-parent family stability, can improve child well-being while we continue to work to increase economic opportunities, reduce discrimination, and re-think our penal system.
Times have changed as have thoughts and practices. There is no respect for an unborn child’s future. In families I have cared for it is the family that has no strong morals that falls apart. Whether black or white, Mexican or Asian. Some have looked at their child as a pet or entertainment. I had a Mom just the other day tell me honestly that she married a 12 year old man. He has his expensive toys. Boats, motorcycles, snowmobile etc. She is a professional social worker – loves to nurture I guess. Yet they are together and make it work. I have worked with several unwed families. They fall apart over little things. Money holds them back from getting married. Someone at the IRS told them it is cheaper to live together single. Not to live by example. In my 22 years of childcare work, I have noticed that children are changed by the environment they are raised in. No one thinks about the consequences of having an illegitimate child anymore – the State will take care of me. I buy an inhaler that costs me $153 but a child in my care with government benefits uses the same inhaler and pays $3. I have always followed good morals was married 7yrs before having kids. Why should I suffer and pay higher prices? Because I am educated? I love watching 16 and pregnant the youth on this show can be more insightful then their parents. Yes they did something wrong but, they try to make it right. Stay in school give up their child to adoption or aboard. How many adults are this intuitive to make this big decision? Not many. I have an unwed family right now in crisis. 2 kids and separated. Their opinion is that they can move on and the kids will be fine. Right – until it happens to their kids. Then what? Families need to start thinking with their minds and not act just to fulfill their desires. In a stable healthy environment with help children actually become model citizens.
Although I do know of one case I had where the child was Mexican and illegitimate, but very bright. She was very forth right and determined to make a difference. She is now 22 and graduated college 2 years ago. She excels in everything she does. An exception to the rule. A work of art.
I think it’s unfair to say that the problem is children born outside of marriage. I imagine that if you look at children born outside of marriage to parents in the upper income groups that they do quite well. What we’re really looking at are the effects of discrimination, lack of educational opportunities, and mass incarceration. Move away from this desire to somehow increase and stabilize marriage and towards a desire to increase economic opportunities.
This is a great point, Sharon. Part of the reason for this discussion about marriage relates directly to resources for children. Two parents often (certainly not always) have more financial and emotional resources to provide to children, and the relative value of this is most evident and the marginal return most pronounced, in families with lower socioeconomic means. Increasing economic opportunities is paramount, and in the meantime, examining other ways to provide vulnerable children with adequate support is critical.
What this suggests,” says 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.”
Start thinking seriously???? YES! When do we finish the self-back patting about “ground-breaking” studies confirming what anyone and everyone who has been awake for the last 40 years already knew and start facing the real problem?
Lots of talk about marriage – yes, marriage would be great for people if they were in stable relationships to begin with but they are not.
Why don’t we face the 800 pound gorilla in the closet – sex – kids having kids because they don’t use birth control?
Stop the pregnancies and allow teens and young twenties the time to mature so they can form lasting relationships and marriages.
You make great points about teen pregnancy and pregnancy prevention, which are discussed in greater detail in one of the chapters in our Fragile Families Future of Children volume: http://www.futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/journals/article/index.xml?journalid=73&articleid=534
The journal also covers some of the reasons why young people are having children outside of marriage including: a cultural shift toward greater acceptance of unwed childbearing; a lack of positive alternatives to motherhood, or the sense that parenthood confers status or meaning in one’s life; lack of planning (as you mention); the limited availability, high cost or both, of the most effective forms of contraception; and a lack of knowledge about contraception, among others.