Fragile Families study earns $17 million federal award

Researchers at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs have been awarded $17 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to support a new round of data collection for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study.

The study is following a cohort of approximately 5,000 children born in the late 1990s and includes a large number of children born to unmarried parents. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is part of the National Institutes of Health, the biomedical research arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Fragile Families study was designed to address four questions of great interest to researchers and policy-makers: What are the conditions and capabilities of unmarried parents, especially fathers? What is the nature of the relationships between unmarried parents? How do children born into these families fare? And, how do policies and environmental conditions affect families and children?

The study is led by a team of researchers at Princeton and Columbia University. Sara McLanahan, director of the Wilson School's Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, is the principal investigator. Co-principal investigators are Christina Paxson, director of the school's Center for Health and Wellbeing, and Irv Garfinkel and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn of Columbia.

The researchers conducted initial interviews with mothers and fathers at the time of their child's birth, and have followed up with interviews with parents and child assessments when the children were ages 3 and 5. The next data collection phase will involve interviewing the same families when their children are age 9, and will continue to collect information on parents' relationships and resources as well as child health and academic achievement.

The interviews with parents allow the researchers to collect information on attitudes, relationships, parenting behaviors, demographic characteristics, mental and physical health, economic and employment status, neighborhood characteristics and program participation. In addition, the new round of data collection will include interviews with children's teachers and DNA samples from mothers and children to be used for genotyping.

Fragile Families study data that can be accessed by the public and related documentation and information are available online.

The research findings already have had an impact on American policy. Most notably, they have informed the Building Strong Families Project, a large evaluation and implementation effort funded by the federal government.

"The Fragile Families study has become a valuable resource for researchers, advocates and policy-makers who are interested in unmarried parents and their children," McLanahan said. "[We] are thrilled by the new award, and we look forward to producing a host of new and important findings that will guide future research and policy."

The Fragile Families study also contributes to the teaching and training mission of the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. The center hosts bi-monthly workshops and courses for faculty and students at Princeton, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, the study has sponsored several summer workshops at Columbia. Princeton undergraduates and graduate students use data from the study for their senior theses and dissertations under the guidance of center faculty.