Category Archives: Fragile Families

Children and the Prison Boom: Finding Solutions

The era of skyrocketing US incarceration rates since the 1970s has been dubbed the “Prison Boom,” and rightfully so. Future of Children authors Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western report a fivefold rise, from about 100 to 500 prisoners for every 100,000 people. A major concern for policymakers and children’s advocates is that many of those incarcerated are parents. Among African American children who grew up during the Prison Boom, one in four had a parent (most often a father) incarcerated at some point during childhood.

As the New York Times wrote recently, families and children with an incarcerated father can face considerable hardship, apart from the challenges associated with the father’s criminality. While identifying a causal relationship between incarceration and various child and family outcomes is difficult, quality research continues to develop in this area. Recent studies find a link to child behavioral problems and school readiness, as well as housing insecurity and homelessness.

There is much discussion about ways to reduce the prison population, from increasing the number of police on the streets, to drug-treatment or faith-based programs. Based on the best research available, the Future of Children’s policy recommendations focus on drug offenders and parole violators. Solutions include intensive community supervision, drug treatment when necessary, and more effective responses to parole violation. The White House highlights one program recommended by Wildeman and Western. Project HOPE in Hawaii significantly reduced drug use and other offenses by administering swift, certain, but very short jail stays to probation violators.

As local, state, and federal leaders seek more effective alternatives to long jail and prison sentences, they should look to quality research to guide policy. See the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families for more information on this topic.

Growing Inequality for Single Parents

“As rates of nonmarital childbirth have increased in the United States in the past half-century, a new family type, the fragile family, has emerged. Fragile families, which are formed as the result of a nonmarital birth, include cohabiting couples as well as noncohabiting, single mothers. Such families evoke public concern in part because they are more impoverished and endure more material hardship than married-parent families and have fewer sources of economic support.” Future of Children: Fragile Families- “Mothers’ Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families”

Jason DeParle asserts in his article in the NY Times that changes in family structure have helped to broaden income gaps. Americans who are college educated are more likely to marry one another, which brings the advantage of higher dual-income earnings. Women who have not finished college or who are less educated are becoming less likely to marry at all. Not only do they have lower paychecks themselves when compared to the college-educated, but they also lack the advantages of dual-income.

As DeParle writes, “estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns–as opposed to changes in individual earnings–may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.”

In his Economic Inequality and the Changing Family blog, DeParle states, “Inequality has grown much faster for households with children than it has for households over all.” Future of Children editor-in-chief Sara McLanahan points out that, “the people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers. The people with less education are more likely to have complex unstable situations involving men who come and go. I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.”

As DeParle points out, “No one has suggested that single parenthood is the sole or even main force driving the increases in inequality, just an important one that is sometimes overlooked. Had single parenthood not continued to increase, there would be less inequality now.”

Over all, it is important for policy makers to recognize that with rates of nonmarital childbirth at their current level, and potentially rising still, fragile families are likely an enduring fixture among U.S. families. It is thus essential to strengthen policies that both support their economic self-sufficiency and alleviate their hardship during inevitable times of economic distress. Future of Children: Fragile Families- “Mothers’ Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families”

Fragile Families Research at PAA 2012

This week, demographers from around the world are gathering in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America (PAA), to discuss their research findings on issues related to migration, health, and population wellbeing. Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing is presenting three main initiatives at the conference: The Future of Children, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and the Princeton Global Network and Child Migration. The Future of Children published a volume on Fragile Families in fall 2010 and researchers continue to build on these findings using the Fragile Families Study data. One example of such work being presented at PAA is the investigation of the role of genes in explaining child behavior outcomes.

In the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families, Jane Waldfogel, Terry-Ann Craigie, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn suggest that several factors play important roles in explaining why children in families with unmarried parents may have poorer outcomes than those of two married parents. These likely include parental resources, parent relationship quality, parenting quality, parental mental health, and father involvement. Another key element that should be considered is family instability, which refers to whether children grow up with the same parent(s) that were present at birth and tends to be higher among unmarried parents. It is assumed that children will have more positive behavioral outcomes when there are fewer disruptions or new partners entering and exiting the household, but researchers continue to investigate this hypothesis.

One element that has recently gained attention regarding its influence on family stability and child outcomes is genes. To examine the role of genes in child behavior and wellbeing, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an ongoing birth cohort study of about 5,000 children and their parents, the majority of whom are unmarried, collected DNA samples from the children and their mothers around the time of the child’s ninth birthday. These genetic data, which will made available through a contract process this fall, are being analyzed with respect to their role in the relationship between family stability and child behavioral outcomes. Early analyses find evidence that genes moderate the relationship between family instability and children’s prosocial behavior. As presented at the Population Association of America, authors Colter Mitchell, Sara McLanahan, Daniel Notterman, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn find evidence that for some genotypes, larger increases in prosocial behavior occur among cases in which a non-resident biological father enters the household and larger decreases in prosocial behavior in cases in which the biological father exits the household.

As indicated in the Future of Children, there are several observable factors that likely explain why children with unmarried parents often fare worse than those of two-parent families, and the link between family instability and genes is only one component of this complex issue. Future research should provide further insight into the role of these and other elements. More literature on the impact of family structure and instability can be found in the Future of Children volumes on Fragile Families and Marriage and Child Wellbeing. Visit the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing website or email for information on the Study and updates on the new genetic data. Also, check out for more publications on child wellbeing.

Research on Fragile Families

As we celebrate the achievements of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., researchers continue to find his dream deferred for millions of American children born to unmarried parents. Referring to unmarried couples with children, the term ‘Fragile Families’ signals a greater likelihood of economic and relationship instability. Children of fragile families are at greater risk of poorer health, school achievement, and social and emotional development.

Researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities have collected data from 20 cities on the lifestyles, health, and wellbeing of fragile families. This ongoing project, known as the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, began by interviewing parents when their children were born and has continued with follow-up interviews at their children’s first, third, fifth, and ninth birthdays. Researchers are now making preparations for the 15-year wave to examine adolescent wellbeing, behavior and peer influence, and once again follow-up with parents.

As the Fragile Families study continues moving forward, new findings are constantly emerging from the data. The Future of Children published a volume on Fragile Families summarizing many of these findings. Topics in the volume include parental relationships, mothers’ economic conditions and sources of support, contributions of unwed fathers, incarceration, and unmarried parents in college. Research on the Fragile Families data has also been cited in other Future of Children volumes: Antipoverty Policies, Transition to Adulthood, Opportunity in America, and Marriage and Child Wellbeing. In addition, hundreds of other publications, including journal articles, books and book chapters, working papers, and research briefs have been made available for easy access on the Fragile Families publications website.

Researchers and Fragile Families staff members (FFDATA) at Princeton seek to maximize the use of the rich data that has come out of the Study by making data files available for public use. Novice and experienced data users can email the FFDATA team ( with questions about the Study and receive help with downloading and using the various files. They can also inquire about the three-day Fragile Families data users’ workshop that will be held in July at Columbia University.

Incarceration and the Family

National Public Radio’s Tell Me More recently featured a discussion on a surprising trend in the US criminal justice system – the number of offenders under adult correctional supervision has begun to decline. While the incarceration rate in 2010 was still about seven times the average in Western Europe, the number under court supervision dropped by 1.3 percent. Experts attribute the decline to a realization among policymakers that there are more effective and affordable ways to treat nonviolent offenders.

About 2.7 million people under age 18, representing about 1 in 28 children in the US, had a parent in jail or prison in 2010, according to a Pew Research study. As noted in the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families, in many cases there are negative outcomes for families when parents are incarcerated for a nonviolent offense. Formerly incarcerated fathers have lower earnings, are less likely to work, and are more likely to experience homelessness. Their children are more likely to face material hardship and residential moves, have contact with the foster care system, show aggressive behavior, and are less likely to live with both biological parents. Findings suggest that these negative effects extend beyond parent-child separation and are limited to families who don’t report domestic violence, suggesting that incarceration may have positive outcomes where domestic violence has occurred.

As state budgets face continual strains, finding new ways to treat nonviolent offenders may be a winning solution for both states and families. However, all new strategies must be carefully examined before implementation.

In the Future of Children Fragile Families volume, researchers argue that any proposed reform should first be assessed in terms of its consequences for families. Intensive community supervision is recommended, along with drug treatment where necessary, and a system that allows for a timely response to probation and parole violations without a disproportionately severe prison time. For reducing the risk of returning to prison, the volume recommends reentry programs to provide transitional services for education and training, medical treatment, housing, and job placement. Research links such programs to lower recidivism and improved employment for ex-prisoners. For more discussion on alternatives to incarceration and policy recommendations to reduce recidivism, see the Future of Children’s issues on Juvenile Justice, the Transition to Adulthood, and Fragile Families.

Disadvantaged Young Men and Families

“The statistics are sobering: more than 23 million children, or 1 out of every 3, live apart from their biological fathers; males are now less likely than females to graduate from high school and to enter and graduate from college; there is long-term decline in the percentage of adult males who have jobs; and only about 60 percent of young minority males have a job. The nation is in a crisis regarding the development and economic productivity of young males, especially disadvantaged males.” (Brookings Institution)

On December 5, the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution hosted an event focused on young disadvantaged males in the United States and the intervention programs that might best serve them.

Using research from a recent issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, edited by Timothy Smeeding, Irwin Garfinkel, and Ron Mincy, speakers showed that few teenage and young adult males benefited from the economic recovery of 2003-2007 and men under thirty were more adversely affected than any other demographic group by the Great Recession.

Broadly speaking, men have historically had the upper hand in the U.S. economy. But with the recent decline in jobs, including manufacturing and construction jobs, young men now find it more difficult to earn enough to support a family than they did during the mid-1970s. (The Future of Children: Transition to Adulthood) And by age 30, between sixty eight and seventy five percent of young men in the United States, with only a high school degree or less, are fathers.

Many of these fathers are also incarcerated, which puts additional strain on families. Incarceration rates for men have skyrocketed since the 1980s. As Irv Garfinkel noted at the Brookings event, the U.S. is incarcerating far too many young men, particularly those of color. Although white, non-Hispanic males account for about seventy eight percent of all men over 25 in the U.S., less than one-third of prisoners are white men. Imprisonment diminishes the earnings of adult men, compromises their health, reduces familial resources, and contributes to family breakup. It also adds to the deficits of poor children, thus ensuring that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred intergenerationally. Perversely, incarceration has its most corrosive effects on families whose fathers were involved in neither domestic violence nor violent crime before being imprisoned. (The Future of Children: Fragile Families)

The evidence shows that, with proper funding and implementation, a surprising number of programs could help reduce the problems that afflict disadvantaged young males. Some of these include:

1.) Career Academies: career development and academic achievement programs

2.) The National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program

3.) Expanded Work Programs, including the Child Support Work Program

For more details on these programs, which were featured at the Brookings event, click here.

The Future of Children issues on Transition to Adulthood and Fragile Families also provide additional research on disadvantaged young men and their families.