Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010
To resolve the debate about the causes, consequences, and policy implications of nonmarital childbearing, it is important to lay out the basic questions that this volume addresses.
First, who are these families? What are their capabilities? What is the nature of parental relationships and how do they change over time? Are children born outside of marriage connected to both parents, and do they remain connected? In other words, are fragile families in the United States made up of stable cohabiters as is typical of unmarried parents in Scandinavian countries, or do they look different, and if so, how?
Second, how do children in these families fare? Do their births into nontraditional families have positive, negative, or neutral effects on their well-being? What are the mechanisms and pathways that are responsible for these effects?
Finally, with the trend toward forming fragile families showing no sign of slowing, should researchers and policy makers be concerned? Does the ongoing trend pose problems, and if so, what is the role of government policy in providing solutions? How should current policies aimed at reducing child poverty and improving child well-being be modified if fathers in fragile families are in fact more involved than conventional wisdom acknowledges? Perhaps more controversially, is there an appropriate role for government in preventing the formation of fragile families in the first place?
To answer these questions, we commissioned a group of experts to write nine articles. The first four articles examine fragile families from various vantage points of the family: the couple, the mother, the father, and the child. The fifth looks at particular issues of race and ethnicity. The last four delve into policy issues that have special pertinence for fragile families: pregnancy prevention, incarceration, postsecondary education, and marriage and fatherhood programs. Next, we briefly highlight some of the papers' key findings.
Fragile Family Couples
In the first article, "Parental Relationships in Fragile Families," Sara McLanahan and Audrey Beck, both of Princeton University, focus on four aspects of the parental relationship: the stability of the living arrangement, the quality of the relationship itself, the nonresident father's involvement with his child, and the quality of the co-parenting relationship. Their analysis dispels conventional wisdom that nonmarital births are a result of casual encounters. At the time of the birth, most parents are romantically involved and have high hopes that they will get married; most, however, are not able to establish stable unions or long-term co- parenting relationships. Five years after birth, a third of fathers have virtually disappeared from their children's lives. New partnerships bringing new children are common, leading to high levels of instability and complexity in these families.
To understand why relationships among unmarried parents are so unstable, the authors look at the key determinants of parental relationships. Among the predictors of instability are low economic resources, government policies that contain marriage penalties, cultural norms that support single motherhood; demographic factors, such as shortages of marriageable men; and psychological factors that make it difficult for parents to maintain healthy relationships. No single factor appears to be dominant.
The authors also explore strategies for improving parental relationships in fragile families. They point out that although economic resources are a consistent predictor of positive outcomes, researchers and policy makers lack solid information on whether increasing fathers' employment and earnings will increase relationship quality and union stability. They note that analysts need to know more about whether relationship quality in fragile families can be improved directly and whether doing so will increase union stability, father involvement, and co-parenting quality. Although a recent interim evaluation of the Building Strong Families Project found no effects overall of programs designed to increase marriage and improve relationship quality among unmarried parents,10 it did show positive effects for African American couples (combined across all cities), and in Oklahoma City it showed a number of positive effects on several outcomes for all racial groups combined, though not for marriage. The authors conclude that ongoing experiments to test the effectiveness of relationship programs, originally designed for married couples but now used for unmarried parents, are important for shaping future interventions.
Fragile Family Mothers
The second article, "Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families," by Ariel Kalil of the University of Chicago and Rebecca Ryan of Georgetown University, examines the public and private resources that mothers contribute in fragile families. Data based on the Fragile Families Study show that very few unmarried mothers earn enough to support themselves and their children at more than twice the federal poverty level. Nor are mothers able to accumulate assets to tide them through inevitable financial difficulties.
Mothers in fragile families make ends meet in many ways. Although the authors show that various public programs, particularly those that provide in-kind assistance, do successfully lessen economic hardship in fragile families, many of the most effective programs, such as the earned income tax credit, hinge on mothers' employment. And because the nation's recovery from the Great Recession, which began in December 2007, has been painfully slow, there is reason for concern about the stability of the public safety net for mothers with little education and those who face other barriers to employment.
Because of limited safety net resources, mothers in fragile families may turn more often to private sources of support—friends, family, boyfriends—for cash and in-kind assistance. But though these private safety nets are essential to many mothers' economic survival, they cannot promote long-term economic mobility. Given that the fragile family is likely an enduring fixture in this country, the authors argue that it is essential to strengthen policies that both support these families' economic self-sufficiency and alleviate their hardship during inevitable times of economic distress. They advocate strengthening the public safety net—especially such in-kind benefits as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (formerly food stamps), Medicaid, housing, and child care—and bolstering community-based programs that can provide private financial support, such as emergency cash assistance, child care, and food aid when mothers cannot receive it from their own private networks.
Fragile Family Fathers
Robert Lerman, of American University and the Urban Institute, devotes much of the third article, "Capabilities and Contributions of Unwed Fathers," to examining how the capabilities and contributions of unwed fathers fall short of those of married fathers, and how those capabilities and contributions differ by the kind of relationship the fathers have with their children's mothers, a relationship that changes as infants grow into toddlers and kindergartners. He describes the striking heterogeneity in the earnings of unwed fathers, with the bottom quarter earning less than $10,000 per year.
Although most unwed fathers spend considerable time with their children in the years soon after birth, over time their involvement erodes. Men who lose touch with their children are likely to see their earnings stagnate, tend to provide less financial support, and often find themselves with new obligations when they father children with another partner. By contrast, the unwed fathers who marry or cohabit with their child's mother earn considerably higher wages and work substantially more than those who do not marry or cohabit. Although Lerman describes evidence indicating that much of the gap in earnings between unwed fathers who marry and fathers who remain single is attributable to marriage itself, this finding is controversial.11 As he points out, marriage alone does not explain the significant differences in earnings that are associated with the lower age, education, and work experience of unmarried fathers. Many scholars including the editors go further and believe the evidence indicates that marriage can account for only a very small proportion of the gap in earnings between men who have children within marriage and men who do not, given the large disparities in the human capital between these two groups of men.
Lerman points out that several factors influence the extent to which unwed fathers stay involved with their children. Better-educated fathers, those who most identify with the father's role, and those with good relationships with their children's mothers, are most likely to sustain a relationship with their children. Some studies even find that strong child support enforcement increases father involvement, though for many low-income fathers, child support obligations represent such a large share of their incomes that they are discouraged from entering the formal job market, particularly when those benefits go to the state for reimbursement of welfare outlays rather than to their children.
Until recently, policies dealing with noncustodial unwed fathers focused almost entirely on increasing child support collections. Recognizing the limits of that approach and the need to raise the earnings capacity of unwed fathers generally, policy makers have begun considering new steps. One initiative includes programs to improve the relationship and communication skills of unwed fathers and mothers. As noted, the jury is still out as to whether these efforts, which are still in their early stages, offer the promise of increasing marriages, improving marital stability, and enhancing couple relationships—and thus perhaps of increasing the earnings of fathers. Adding employment components would likely enhance these marriage education initiatives. Another promising strategy is to raise earnings through targeted training, such as apprenticeships that allow unwed fathers to earn a salary while they learn skills.
Fragile Family Children
The fourth paper, "Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing," concludes that children who grow up in single-mother and cohabiting families fare worse than children born into married-couple households. Jane Waldfogel and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, both of Columbia University, and Terry-Ann Craigie, of Princeton University, note that analysts have investigated five key pathways that underlie the links between family structure and child well-being: parental resources, parental mental health, parental relationship quality, parenting quality, and father involvement. Researchers have also looked into the likely role of selection—the presence of different types of men and women in different family types—as well as the roles of family stability and instability. But they remain uncertain about which pathways explain children's outcomes.
In addition to providing an overview of findings from other studies using the Fragile Families Study, Waldfogel, Craigie, and Brooks-Gunn also report their own estimates of the effect of a consistently defined set of family structure and stability categories on a set of child outcomes at age five in the Fragile Families Study. They find that being raised in a fragile family does not have uniform effects on child outcomes. Family instability, for example, seems to matter more than family structure for cognitive and health outcomes, whereas growing up with a single mother (regardless of stability) is more important for behavior problems. Overall, their findings are consistent with other evidence that being raised by stable single or cohabiting parents seems to entail less risk than being raised by single or cohabiting parents when these family types are unstable.
The authors conclude by pointing to three types of policy reforms that could improve outcomes for children. The first reform is to lower the share of children growing up in fragile families by reducing the rate of unwed births or promoting family stability among unwed parents. The second is to address the pathways that place such children at risk— for example, through boosting resources in single-parent homes or fostering father involvement in fragile families. The third is to address directly the risks these children face—for example, through high-quality early childhood education and home-visiting programs.
Race and Ethnicity
Robert Hummer, of the Univerty of Texas–Austin, and Erin Hamilton, of the University of California–Davis, note that the prevalence of fragile families varies substantially by race and ethnicity. African Americans and Hispanics have the highest prevalence; Asians, the lowest; and whites fall somewhere in the middle. The share of unmarried births is lower among most foreign-born mothers than among their U.S.-born ethnic counterparts. Immigrant-native differences are particularly large for Asians, whites, and blacks.
The authors also find racial and ethnic differences in the composition and stability of fragile families over time. Although most parents of all racial and ethnic groups are romantically involved at the time of their child's birth, African American women are less likely to be in a cohabiting relationship than are white and Hispanic mothers. Over time, these racial and ethnic differences become more pronounced, with African American mothers having the lowest rates of marriage and cohabitation and the highest breakup rates, and Mexican immigrant mothers having the highest rates of marriage and cohabitation and the lowest breakup rates.
Fragile families have far fewer socioeconomic resources than married families, though resources vary within fragile families by race and ethnicity. White mothers, in general, have more socioeconomic resources than black, Mexican American, and Mexican immigrant mothers; they are more likely to have incomes above the poverty limit, more likely to own a car, less likely to have children from a prior relationship, and more likely to report living in a safe neighborhood. Access to health care and child care follows a similar pattern. The exception is education; black and white unmarried mothers are equally likely to have finished high school, and Mexican immigrant and Mexican American mothers are less likely to have done so.
The authors argue that socioeconomic differences are by far the biggest driver of racial and ethnic differences in marriage and family stability, and they support reforms to strengthen parents' economic security. They also discuss how sex ratios and culture affect family formation and stability. In particular, they note that despite severe poverty, Mexican immigrant families have high rates of marriage and cohabitation—an advantage that erodes by the second generation with assimilation. To address the paradox that marriage in these families declines as socioeconomic status improves, they support policies that reinforce rather than undermine the family ties of Mexican immigrants.
Isabel Sawhill, Adam Thomas, and Emily Monea, all of the Brookings Institution, believe that in view of the well-documented costs of nonmarital births to both children and parents in fragile families, as well as to society as a whole, policy makers' primary goal should be to reduce births to unmarried parents, especially since so many unmarried parents have their first children when they are teenagers.
The authors observe that the swiftly rising nonmarital birth rate has many explanations —a cultural shift toward acceptance of unwed childbearing, a lack of alternatives to motherhood among the disadvantaged, a sense of fatalism or ambivalence about pregnancy, a lack of marriageable men, limited access to effective contraception, inadequate knowledge about contraception, and the difficulty of using contraception consistently and correctly.
Noting that these explanations fall generally into three categories—motivation, knowledge, and access—the authors discuss policies designed to motivate individuals to avoid unintended pregnancies, to improve their knowledge about contraception, and to remove barriers to contraceptive access. Some motivational programs, such as media campaigns, have been effective in changing behavior. Some, but not all, sex education programs designed to reduce teen pregnancy have also been effective at reducing sexual activity or increasing contraceptive use, or both. Programs providing access to subsidized contraception have also been effective and would be even more so if they could increase the use not just of contraceptives, but of long-acting, reversible contraceptive methods such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and injections.
Finally, the authors present simulations of the costs and effects of three policy initiatives— a mass media campaign that encourages men to use condoms, a teen pregnancy prevention program that discourages sexual activity and educates teen participants about proper contraceptive use, and an expansion in access to Medicaid-subsidized contraception. All three have benefit-cost ratios that are comfortably greater than one and are sound investments worthy of consideration by policy makers. The Medicaid expansion has the largest benefit-cost ratio, followed by the condom use campaign and then by the teen pregnancy program.
Rapidly rising rates of incarceration in the United States since the mid-1970s have proved damaging to the nation's poor and minority communities. The effects of this prison boom have been concentrated among those already on the periphery of society: black and (to a lesser degree) white men with little schooling—the same segments of society in which fragile families are most likely to be formed. Christopher Wildeman, of Yale University, and Bruce Western, of Harvard University, explain that the drastic increases in the American incarceration rate were driven by urban manufacturing decline, a booming drug trade that fostered addiction and careers in crime, and a punitive turn in criminal justice policy.
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—increasing the likelihood that the effects of imprisonment on inequality are transferred across generations. Perversely, incarceration has its most corrosive effects on families whose fathers were involved in neither domestic violence nor violent crime before being imprisoned. Because having a parent go to prison is now so common for poor, minority children and affects them so negatively, the authors argue that mass imprisonment may exacerbate future racial and class inequality—and may even lead to more crime in the long term, thereby undoing any crime-reducing benefits of the prison boom.
Wildeman and Western advocate several policy reforms. The first is to limit prison time for drug offenders and for parolees who violate the technical conditions of their parole (as opposed to committing new crimes), relying instead on inexpensive and effective alternatives such as intensive community supervision, drug treatment, and graduated sanctions that allow parole and probation officers to respond to violations without immediately resorting to prison sentences. A second reform is to support men and women returning home from prison, thus diminishing recidivism rates and improving employment among ex-prisoners.
But Wildeman and Western argue that criminal justice reform alone will not solve the problems of school failure, joblessness, untreated addiction, and mental illness that pave the way to prison. In fact, focusing solely on criminal justice reforms would repeat the mistakes of the prison boom, during which the nation tried to solve social problems with criminal justice policies. Addressing those problems, they say, will require a greater commitment to education, public health, and the employment opportunities of low-skilled men and women.
Noting that access to higher education has expanded dramatically in the past several decades, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Kia Sorensen, both of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, focus on how postsecondary education affects the lives of unmarried mothers in fragile families. Contrary to the widespread expectation that access to college always promotes family stability and economic security, the authors argue that because current postsecondary educational policy and practice is insufficiently supportive, college attendance may, ironically, have substantial downsides for many families headed by unmarried parents.
Although rates of college attendance have increased substantially among unmarried parents, college completion rates are low. Many unmarried mothers struggle to complete degree or certificate programs because of inadequate academic preparation. And severe financial constraints can cause them to interrupt their studies or increase their work hours, thus decreasing their chance to finish their studies. Despite having made it to college, they are squeezed for time and money in ways that create significant stress and compromise both the quality of their educational experiences and the outcomes for their children.
The authors point out that many public programs, such as Pell Grants, federal subsidized loans, and welfare, offer support to unmarried mothers attending college. But the programs are neither well coordinated nor easily accessed. Over the past three decades, loans have increasingly replaced grants as the most common form of federal and state support for students seeking to finance college. Confusion about what is available leads many low-income students to the two most "straightforward" sources of income—loans and work, both of which involve significant costs and can work at cross-purposes with public forms of support. The Pell Grant penalizes students for attending college a few classes at a time and is not available to anyone with a drug conviction while in college.
Some evidence shows that providing social, financial, and academic supports to community college students can improve achievement and attainment for vulnerable students. For example, students who participate in contextualized learning programs—hands-on courses that tie the lessons to the lives and experiences of the students—are more likely than nonparticipants to move on from basic skills to credit-bearing coursework and successfully complete credits, earn certificates, and make gains on basic skills tests. Another successful initiative provides special counseling services to low-income students with a history of academic difficulties and gives them a small stipend of $150 per semester when they use those services. Several states are also conducting experimental performance-based financial aid programs at community colleges to test their effectiveness.
Marriage and Fatherhood Programs
To improve the quality and stability of couple and father-child relationships in fragile families, researchers are beginning to consider how to tailor existing couple-relationship programs (which generally target married or middle-income couples) and father-involvement interventions to the specific needs of unwed couples in fragile families. The goal, explain authors Philip Cowan and Carolyn Cowan, of the University of California-Berkeley, and Virginia Knox, of MDRC, is to provide a more supportive developmental context for mothers, fathers, and, especially, the children in fragile families.
The authors present a conceptual model to explain why couple-relationship and father-involvement interventions that were developed for middle- and low-income married couples might be expected to provide benefits for children of unmarried parents. They summarize the extensive research on existing couple-relationship and father-involvement interventions, noting that only a few of the programs for couples and a handful of fatherhood programs have been systematically evaluated. Of those that have been evaluated, few have included unmarried couples as participants and none has investigated whether interventions may have different effects when unmarried fathers live with or apart from the child. Furthermore, although programs for couples or fathers tout the potential benefits for children, they rarely assess child outcomes systematically.
The authors consider whether effective interventions designed for working- and middle-class fathers or couples might be helpful to fragile families. They offer the example of one project in which an intervention for low-income parents included random assignment to a couples group or a fathers-only group that focused on key facets of family life including parenting and couple-relationship quality. The intervention was equally effective for married and unmarried parents. Because the evidence suggests that couple-oriented programs also had a positive effect on father involvement and on lowering parenting stress, the authors recommend integrating couple and fatherhood interventions to increase their power to reduce the risks and enhance the protective factors for children's development and well-being. This conclusion, however, is tempered by the recent findings in the Building Strong Families evaluation that found, on average, no effects of relationship programs on a host of outcomes, including father involvement in most families in the study. The authors emphasize the need for more research on program development to understand the most effective ways to strengthen co-parenting by couples who are the biological parents of a child but who have relatively tenuous, or already dissolved, relationships with one another.