(March 2005) Decreasing the risk of poverty and health, educational, and behavioral problems among children born to unwed low-income parents will require programs that address those parents’ relationship skills as well as their limited educations and earnings, according to a new policy brief.

Published by Mathematica Policy Research, the brief is based on findings from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a Princeton University and Columbia University research effort that followed a birth cohort of mostly unwed parents and their children over a five-year period. The study was designed to gather new information on the capabilities and relationships of unwed parents as well as the effects of government policies on family formation and child well-being.

For the study, which is now in the final phases of data collection, Mathematica surveyed about 3,700 unmarried parents at hospitals in 20 U.S. cities shortly after their children’s births and again when the children reached ages 1, 3, and 5. Sara McLanahan, lead investigator for the Fragile Families study and a co-author of the policy brief, says that the unwed couples being tracked fall about evenly into one of three categories regarding prospects for marriage:

  • Those who could benefit from marriage promotion programs that improve communications skills;
  • Those who need help with employment or drug or alcohol abuse as well as relationship skills; and
  • Those who are “not good candidates for marriage,” according to McLanahan—either because they are no longer together, because they have problems with domestic violence, or because the father committed a violent crime.

McLanahan, who is also a Princeton University sociologist, says that the Bush Administration’s new marriage-promotion policies need to address trust and supportiveness in low-income couples if they are to increase stability in these relationships.

“But we also need policies that increase the returns to work and make it possible for low-skilled men and women to achieve the living standard they associate with marriage,” she adds.

The Hot Button Issue of Marriage Promotion

Government efforts to address child poverty were focused during the Clinton administration on keeping fathers committed to their children. But the Bush Administration has announced plans to spend about $1.5 billion over five years on programs to promote marriage among low-income couples, including improving interpersonal communications skills among unmarried parents.

Findings from the Fragile Families Study have fueled the debate over the administration’s initiative. At congressional hearings in February on welfare reform reauthorization proposals, Heritage Foundation policy analyst Robert Rector testified that “findings from the Fragile Families survey show that increasing fathers’ employment and earnings will have only a marginal effect in increasing marriage [among unwed parents]. Improving attitudes and relationship skills will have a far greater impact.”1

At the same hearing, Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution fellow, endorsed marriage education programs that feature training in relationship skills and financial planning. But Haskins also argued that the government should provide low-income parents with additional services, “especially employment services for both the mothers and fathers.”

McLanahan argues that any initiative to help low-income parents should have both components. “I testified before Congress a number of years ago and said that, if you want to involve fathers in the lives of their children, you’ve got to start at birth—it’s a magic moment,” says McLanahan. “I’ve also said marriage isn’t going to solve all these couples’ problems.”

Optimistic About Marriage, But Often Not Equipped For It

The Fragile Families Study found that, while many unwed low-income parents had high hopes for getting married, these couples also often had substantial economic and social disadvantages compared with married couples. And fewer than 10 percent actually married within three years.

“More than one-half of unwed parents were living together, and 80 percent were romantically involved at the time of their child’s birth,” says McLanahan. “Two out of three said their chances of marrying were really good or almost certain. These findings contradict the argument that relationships between unwed parents are casual.”

But unwed couples surveyed were on average poorer, less educated, less likely to be working, and more likely to have problems with alcohol and drug abuse or depression compared with married couples.

Many unwed parents also told researchers during in-depth interviews that they were reluctant to get married until they had achieved a certain level of financial security, “such as a modest home, some furniture, a car, and some savings to pay for an engagement ring and a wedding,” according to qualitative data reported in the policy brief. Earning $25,000 or more in the previous year more than doubled a couple’s chances of marrying by the child’s first birthday, according to Fragile Family study findings published in the journal Demography.2

Among the Fragile Family Study’s other findings:

  • Unwed parents who believed marriage was better for children and superior to living together were about twice as likely to marry by their child’s first birthday than parents who disagreed on this point;
  • Around 40 percent of fathers surveyed had spent some time in jail, and more than one-third had a mental health problem such as depression or alcohol or drug abuse;
  • About one in five of the fathers surveyed were unemployed, and one-third lacked a high school degree.

The low-skill levels of many unwed parents have “important implications for their ability to hold a steady job, maintain a stable relationship, and raise a child,” says McLanahan.

The Investment Gap in Children

McLanahan’s research also finds a dramatic disparity in the time and money the most-educated and the least-educated parents invest in their children—a gap that does not bode well for the future social and economic development of poor children.

The percentage of mothers who are employed, the percentage of mothers who have postponed childbearing until their late 20s or early 30s, and the amount of time fathers spend with their children—all key indicators of parents’ investment in children—are growing most rapidly among parents with the highest levels of education and income.

At the same time, McLanahan found, single motherhood, divorce, and absence of fathers—trends associated with decreased investment in children—are rising the fastest among the most disadvantaged parents. Consider the following:

  • The median age of mothers of young children (age 5 and younger) was 32 in 2000 among the most highly educated one-quarter of mothers, but stood at 23 for the least educated one-quarter of mothers. Research shows that older mothers tend to be more educated, and more psychologically mature than younger mothers, according to McLanahan.
  • The most educated one-quarter of mothers were more than twice as likely to be employed in 2000 (63 percent) compared to the least educated one-quarter of mothers (30 percent).
  • Married, college-educated fathers spent almost twice as much time caring for and interacting with their children in 2000 than did unmarried, noncollege educated fathers. McLanahan notes that fathers’ involvement in child rearing is linked to increased intellectual and social development for their children.
  • After 1980, divorce rates fell among college-educated women, but continued to rise among less-educated women.
  • Fewer than 10 percent of the most-educated one-quarter of U.S. mothers were single in 2000, compared with more than 40 percent of the least-educated one-quarter of mothers. McLanahan argues that single motherhood is a “loss in children’s resources,” citing research that shows that children who live with single mothers tend to “receive less financial and emotional support from their biological fathers, and their family lives tend to be less stable and more stressful.”

“Mothers with the most economic independence—the highest education and income levels—are leading the way, not in single motherhood, but in establishing stable marriages,” she says.

McLanahan argues that narrowing such gaps will involve encouraging women from disadvantaged background to delay childbearing, to invest in education and training, and to form stable partnerships. She also says that fathers from disadvantaged backgrounds must be encouraged to remain committed to their children—including continuing efforts to strengthen child-support enforcement.

“The government has an important role to play in ensuring that children have adequate resources in the wake of changing family patterns,” McLanahan argues, citing the Earned Income Tax Credit as a prime example of such an effort. “We designed old age pensions for the elderly to address increases in longevity 100 years ago, and children deserve no less.”

Paola Scommegna is a freelance writer.


  1. For the Heritage study, see Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, “Roles of Couples’ Relationship Skills and Fathers’ Employment in Encouraging Marriage,” Report of the Center for Data Analysis, CDA04-14, (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2004).
  2. Marcia Carlson, Sara McLanahan, and Paula England, “Union Formation in Fragile Families,” Demography 41, no. 2 (2004): 237-61.

For More Information

Sara McLanahan, “Diverging Destinies: How Children Are Faring Under the Second Demographic Transition,” Demography 41, no. 4 (2004): 607-27.

Marcia Carlson, Sara McLanahan, and Paula England, “Union Formation in Fragile Families,” Demography 41, no. 2 (2004): 237-61.

Marcia Carlson et al., “What We Know About Unmarried Parents: Implications for Building Strong Families Programs,” Building Strong Families, In Brief, no. 2 (Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research, 2005), accessed online at www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/bsfisbr3.pdf on Feb. 24, 2005.