PRB Discuss Online: How Are the Children of Single Mothers Faring? Evidence From the Fragile Families Study

(February 2010) The percentage of U.S. children born outside marriage has increased dramatically over several decades, growing from 6 percent of all births in 1960 to nearly 40 percent of births today. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study has been following a cohort of approximately 3,600 children born to unmarried parents at the turn of the 21st century to learn more about these families, investigating, among other issues, the capabilities and circumstances of these parents and the nature of their relationships at birth. What happens to parents’ relationships and capabilities over time? How well do children in fragile families fare? What role do welfare state policies play in the lives of parents and children?

During a PRB Discuss Online, Sara McLanahan, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University and principal investigator on the Fragile Families Study, answered participants’ questions about the challenges and realities that confront the children of unmarried parents—and how these children and their parents are faring.

Thank all of you for submitting questions for Professor McLanahan and for following the discussion. Because of the large volume of questions, she was not able to respond to all of them during the session. You can find more information about this research at

Feb. 18, 2010 1 PM EST 

Transcript of Questions and Answers

ABDUL MALIK GHAURI: giving property of husband to wife in case of divorce appears to be a major reason avoiding formal marriages so should not the laws are needed to be amended to make formal marriage a simple and easy affair?
Sara McLanahan: most of the couples who are having children outside marriage do not have any wealth so i doubt that property law is a big factor in their decisions about marriage

Andrew Cummings: homes or are they to a unwed couple or a non-traditional couple? Do the policies and practices of the welfare state just create more welfare families?
Sara McLanahan: about half of non-marital births in the US are to cohabiting parents and about 30 percent are to couples who are in a romantic relationship but living apart. In theory, programs that are highly income-tested should discourage marriage. This is not the case for welfare state programs that are not income-tested (e.g. public education).

Holly Stover: Is there a region where there are more occurrences of single parents? Is there a higher occurrence in any one socio-economic status over another? How likely are these children to obtain higher education?
Sara McLanahan: Non-marital childbearing is strongly associated with socio-economic status and minority status. Between 30% and 40% of unmarried mothers and fathers lack a high school degree and less than 3% have finished college. African Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of non-marital childbearing than whites, even after adjusting for SES With respect to region, non-marital childbearing rates are higher in states with high levels of poverty and a high proportion of minorities.

Israrul Haque: What do you think will be the effect on American society when 40% [of] the birth will be comprising of illegal children born out of wedlock [missing] the [care] and affection of their father. Is it not a matter of great concern for any society? What the present administration plan to restrict this irresponsible behavior?
Sara McLanahan: Non-marital childbearing is not equivalent to single motherhood. About 50% of non-marital births in the US are to cohabiting couples. Indeed, in some countries (e.g. sweden and france), where non-marital childbearing rates are even higher than in the US, close to 90 percent of unmarried couples are cohabiting. And these cohabiting unions can be very stable. the problem is that in the US, cohabiting parent unions are not very stable and thus these children are experiencing a great deal of instability. the US government is currently funding programs to promote stable marriage and encourage father involvement, and these programs are being evaluated. for move information, google “Building Strong Families” or “Strengthening Healthy Marriage”

Ralph Yehle: How do children of mixed-race living in households with a single-race parent do compared to children living with a same race parent?
Sara McLanahan: i don’t have any data on this question

Meryl Goodwin: I am intrigued by the name “Fragile Families Study.” It seems like very judgemental language, and the researchers are implying that these families are more fragile right off the bat before the research was even conducted. What was the hypothesis before the study started? I am curious about the methodology because just from the title, it already seems biased against births out of wedlock.
Sara McLanahan: Before we began the study, we knew (from demographic research) that cohabiting and dating couples were much more likely to end their partnerships than married couples. We also knew these parents were less educated and more likely to be poor than married parents. For these two reasons, we used the word “fragile.” At the same time, we used the word “family” to underscore that fact that these couples and their child are connected both biologically and socially, Indeed, prior to our study, many analyists thought most non-marital births were the produce of casual relationships. A major finding from our study is that 80 percent of these parents are in a romantic relationship at the time of their child’s birth.

Ntoimo Favour C.: Dr McLanahan, Please how can I access the full text of this current research on how children of single mothers are faring? I am doing a PhD research on never married women age 30 to 59, some of whom are single mothers.
Sara McLanahan: Everything about the study, including research papers, data description, etc. is available at:  

Raïq, Hicham: Thanks for this interesting topic. For me the question is how to help single mothers to balance work and care activities. In the American context of workfare, what is the impact on single mothers’ poverty ? How [many] single mothers are poor as compared to other families?
Sara McLanahan: poverty rates are high among unmarried mothers. Whereas 14% of married mothers are poor at the time their child is born, the number is 53% for unmarried mothers who are living alone and 32% for unmarried mothers who are cohabiting with child’s father.

Emeka Nwosu, Nigeria: Is it not better to have kids in a marriage
Sara McLanahan: on average, children born to married parents have better outcomes than children born to unmarried parents. But this does not mean that all children born to unmarried parents do worse than all children born to married parents. Parents’ marital status at birth increases a child’s risk of having a bad outcome, but it does not mean that a bad outcome is inevitable.

Dr. Anima Sharma: Hi, This is a very contemporary issue w.r.t. every country and as the question-mark suggests further elaboration, hence I will narrate few of my findings on this board. I am an Indian and as being an Anthropologist, I have studied several rural, urban and tribal communities. I have found that there could [be] several types of single mothers- widowed, separated, divorced, unmarried, single mothers who have adopted the child(ren), women raising children singlehandedly as their hudbands are working elsewhere (military/ business), etc. Single mothers living in rural areas or living within a network (social or professional) face lesser adversities while those living in urban areas face more challenges sometimes addressing the issue of survival. Hence, when we analyse the performance of the children of single mothers then we should take into account all these factors. Sometimes they do well professionally but face several psychological problems. Sometimes their psychological problems ride upon their professional and social life. Sometimes due to persistent struggle on economic frnts makes them aggresive or at the other times they are humbled by it. I have seen several of these types personally. I also would like to make this topic more specific by understanding that what does author mean by faring, that is economically, career-wise, socially…what? There are children who have shown outstanding performance as one of my colleagues. But I am sure that he would have been different if he would not be holding his family treasure. Thus economic insecurity plays a vital role. But on the whole, I have found that it is a good topic for conducting multi-disciplinary research, cross-sectionally.
Sara McLanahan: i agree that there is a good deal of variation within different types of single-mother families. I also agree that there is variation in child outcomes. Finally, i very much agree about the value of interdisciplinary research. We have economists, sociologists, demographers and psychologists on our research team. We also have an ethnographer who has followed about 50 of these families over time and conducted indepth interviews with mothers and fathers.

Elizabeth Bocaletti: What’s the relationship between single mothers and sociocultural, education and age factors?
Sara McLanahan: As compared with married mothers, unmarried mothers are younger, much less educated, and much more likely to be of minority status. With respect to attitudes, unmarried mothers place a high value on marriage and many say they plan to marry. Unmarried mothers report about the same level of relationship quality as married mothers – at the time of child’s birth. Finally, unmarried mothers are somewhat more distrustful of men than married mothers and they are also more likely to believe that “a single mother can raise a child alone.”

Robert Prentiss: I recall seeing a study that indicated that children growing up with single mothers who gave them little care or support who accepted that they were unwanted fared better than similarly treated children who made excuses for their mothers and lived in hope things would change? Do you know of any studies on coping mechanisms of such children?
Sara McLanahan: I’ve never heard about this finding. There is a large literature in psychology about the coping mechanisms of children of divorce. Mavis Hetherington is a good place to start

Joy Francis: Can you state if children of single mothers fare better than children of single fathers? Does the study examine this issue?
Sara McLanahan: The evidence i have seen suggests that children of single mothers and single fathers do about the same. However, it’s not really a fair comparison because children raised by a single father are a pretty select group, especially young children

Meskerem Bekele, Ethiopia: In our country, even if I couldn’t found what the research saying about this issue I don’t think that children without marriage is … much problem for us. Our culture also couldn’t encourage this kind of things. When I discussed with my friend about this kind issue, most of the time she said that if husband and wife couldn’t live together peacefully, this is going to be more difficult for the children. And she believe that it is better to have children without marriage than children with hard or bad marriage. What do you think? and what research said about this?
Sara McLanahan: you are correct that living in a high conflict home is not good for children, especially if the conflict is about the child. some studies have shown that children in high conflict situtataions are better off after their parents divorce.

Jann Anguish: In the title of the article “single mothers” are referred to. In the article itself “unmarried parents” are referred to. Does this mean that some are single mothers while other children are born to couples that live together (or not) but are not married? Does this take into account that individual children have different coping skills, some, just by their nature, are going to be fine and grow to their full potential, while others are going to be scarred by a fragile, disfunctional family.
Sara McLanahan: you are right about the title being a bit confusing. single mothers would include women who divorced whereas unmarried mothers would include women in stable unions. in our study, we started at the hospitals and interviewed mothers who were married and unmarried at birth. and we followed these families over time. So in our study unmarried is not the same as single I agree that children respond differently to family disruption and disfunction, in part because of differences in biology.

Cecily Westermann: Hi, Dr. McLanahan: [Don’t] at least some of the plusses for married parents boil down to logistics of raising children? For example, with two parents in the home, one or the other would be available to take a child to the dentist or attend school functions?
Sara McLanahan: ABSOLUTELY – four hands are better than two, all else being equal.

Deborah: Thanks for this important discussion. I am hoping that your distinguished speaker will say a bit about the extent to which socioeconomic status (SES) of single mothers might be a key factor in their children’s well-being. In other words, is this particular research about the welfare of children of single mothers, or rather more specifically, about the welfare of children of low-income/less educated single mothers? I think the distinction is important. These days in the US, it seems increasingly common (although still not the norm) for highly educated and relatively wealthy women to choose single motherhood. Do we know anything about the welfare of these children? Basically I am wondering if it is “singleness” per se that is a problematic factor, or is socioeconomic status perhaps a more fundamental factor in a child’s well-being? Generally speaking, it is the latter, would it be more logical or “scientific” for relevant studies to ask “How are the Children of Low-Income Mothers Faring?” and include singlehood as an important individual characteristic or risk factor (instead of asking “How are the Children of Single Mothers Faring?” and treating education/income/occupation as an individual characteristics). Unless research to-date gives evidence for singlehood as being a primary causal factor in child’s welfare *regardless of mother’s education and income*, I worry that highlighting mothers’ marital status in such studies does as much (or more) to support moral judgments about the inappropriateness of raising children out-of-wedlock, than to direct accurately concern about the possibly more fundamental factors important to child welfare. Thank you and I look forward to hearing comments from Professor McLanahan.
Sara McLanahan: You are right that non-marital childbearing has increased among college educated mothers. However, the number of women in this situation is still very small. In our sample of unmarried mothers (which is nationally representative of births in large cities), only 3% of mothers have a college degree, whereas 40 percent have no high school degree. Of the remaining mothers (57 percent) about half have a high school degree and about half have some college but no degree. All of the analyses we conduct control for differences in mothers’ education, age, race, income, etc. However, because the number of college educated mothers is so small, it’s very difficult to assess how the children of these mothers are doing.

Maria-Paula Garcia: Does your study look into the motivations these mothers have to have children? Are there any common themes in the way they perceive themselves as mothers?
Sara McLanahan: we didn’t really look at this question, in part because we were interviewing mothers right after the birth and we weren’t sure we would get very accurate answers.

Miguel A. Izquierdo S: Are there evidences of some kind of “resilence” from these children, that let them recover in some grade from its condition?
Sara McLanahan: we haven’t really study the predictors of resilence. we know it’s there because many children born to unmarried parents do just as well as children born to married parents. focusing on the ones that overcome the odds is a good idea. by the way, the data are publically available – see our website at  

Sanjay Mishra: Is there a raedymade solution to resolve this issue, specially in the developed countries where state is not in position to bear the economic burden of such mothers and children, and mothers may be compelled to go on in illicit trade or the child may go in unhealthy profession like ragpicking or any other else, so to mainstream such children after a certain age and the mother may become a larger problem.
Sara McLanahan: as yet, no one has identified a great solution. there are many proposed strategies, including improving relationship skills, improving employment opportunities and earnings and just preventing unintended pregnancies.

Rahat Bari Tooheen: Single mothers and their children are a special group of individuals with distinct needs and futures. Perhaps existing regulations are insufficient for them. Regulation wise, what should be done to make their lives easier?
Sara McLanahan: there are several proposals for how to overcome the problems associated with non-marital childbearing. First, prevent unintended pregnancies, since many non-marital births results from unintended pregnancies; second, increase marriage and marital stability by (a) increasing parents’ human capital and economic resources or (b) increasing relationship skills.

Gregory Kington: What is the percentage of foreclosed properties that belonged to single parents wiht children living in them? Any trends regarding them?
Sara McLanahan: i don’t know the answer to this question. we do know, however, that high rates of unemployment during the recent recession are associated with ‘material hardship’ which includes not being able to pay rent and being evicted.

Joy Francis: Does the study makes any comparisons between chidren with both parents and chidren with single mothers? For example, is more money spent with single parents? How do children in single parent households perform in school academically?
Sara McLanahan: we make lots of comparisons between children with two parents and children with one parent. we also compare children living with two cohabiting parents and children living with two married parents. Children living with married parents have much higher family incomes so we assume that more is spent on these children. Children living with cohabiting parents have less income than children living with married parents because cohabiting parents have less education and lower earnings. Cohabiting parents are also less likely to pool their incomes.

These various family structures are associated with children’s cognitive test scores and behavior problems including attention, agression and anxiety/depression. Children living with married parents do best and those living with single mothers do worst. Instability in family structure is also associated with poor outcomes in children. see our working papers at

Hazel Denton: I recently read a study (the author’s name escapes me) which tracked women who gave birth as teenagers against a control group of their peers. Turns out the ‘mothers’ did as well as the ‘non-mothers’ with the hint that perhaps the responsibility and pressures of parenthood had a positive effect. Do you find this outcome surprising?
Sara McLanahan: Yes, i find this surprising – i know that there are lots of studies using statistical techniques to determine the ‘effect’ of teen births. my understanding is that some of these studies find no adverse effects on mothers but they still find adverse effects on children

Andrew Barnes: Would be interested to know more about the educational attainment and employment history of the parents themselves. Is there a growing trend of unwed and single parents that are college educated and or have high paying jobs?
Sara McLanahan: non-marital childbearing is strongly associated with low SES in the US. Although this phenomenon has increased among college educated mothers (as it has among all mothers), it is still quite rare among high SES women.

Becky S: Hi Dr. McLanahan. I’m involved in research concerning youth. I wondered if you had any information on social and/or health outcomes of children born into single parent homes versus other family structures?
Sara McLanahan: yes, we have lots of findings on the association between family structure and child health. Go to the fragile families website and click under publications. then look for papers on child health  

Carmen Solomon-Fears: Has there been any research on the outcomes of children with the same mother and different fathers in which the mother marries one of the childrens’ father–how do the children living with a nonbioligical father fare? (Are the findings the same as the research that indicate that children living with non-biological parents fare worse than children with both biological parents?)
Sara McLanahan: Both children do worse in such families.

Kim Holdsworth: In my region, 14% of children live in single father households. Can you speak to the outcomes of this group specifically? Are the outcomes seemingly (or measurably) different than for children raised in single-mother households?
Sara McLanahan: As far as I know, studies that compare the children of single mothers and single fathers find no difference in child outcomes. However, single father families are such a special group, I’m not sure what to make of this finding. on the one hand, we might expect those in single father families to have worse outcomes because something unusal has happened to them to get them into this status. on the other hand, we might expect them to have better outcomes because single fathers are a special group of very committed parents.

Lisa: In Colorado, we have below the national average rates of single-parent families. Our rate of increase is also comparable to the U.S. However, our rate of singe-parents falling into poverty is increasing. This makes sense, as single-parent families have fewer resources to adjust to changing economic circumstances. I’m having a hard time communicating that single-parent families are not the CAUSE of the rise in childhood poverty. Any suggestions?
Sara McLanahan: my take on this issue is that single motherhood and non-marital motherhood are both a cause and a consequence of poverty. it’s very clear that poverty is a strong predictor of single motherhood. At the same time, i think there is good evidence that single motherhood itself further reduces children’s life chances, thus reproducing the cycle of poverty

Ellen Fineberg: Is there data in the study that shows why women often are the single parents rather than men?
Sara McLanahan: i don’t believe so

Nadwa: Do we know anything about the impact of the recent recession on children of single mothers?
Sara McLanahan: we are just beginning to investigate this question. we have been in the field since 2007 collecting data on children at age 9 and we will be able to say a lot about how these families are affected by the recession. but it’s a little eary to draw conclusions.

Rachel Naiukow: Have you looked into the possible positive effects of “kinship” or strong family/mentor presence and therefore lessening the negative effects of children born to un-wed parents? Or how much of an effect would you wager this has? At least then an intervention could work towards building more readily available support system for single parents.
Sara McLanahan: in theory, i totally agree that access to extended family support should reduce the negative consequences associated with single parenthood. however, the studies i’ve seen thus far have not been able to show that living with a grandmother or having family support makes much difference.

Traci Hisatake: I’m not sure if I can articulate my thoughts but here’s my attempt: Maybe the question is not marriage vs. non-marriage/single parents, demographics, family variables, etc. but the reasons why women are having children. What does it mean to have children, the expectations and responsibilities of parents and families in raising children. With economic and environmental changes, cultural and society system changes, individuals and family units have not been able to internalize and make conscious decisions about their goals. Many are just trying to survive the changes. I think the focus should be on the meaning of and responsibilities of what marriage, partnership, parents, children, social, etc.
Sara McLanahan: i agree that we need to know much more about the meanings people attach to marriage and parenthood and how these have changed over time.

Joy Francis: Sociologists who have examined single mothers have found that those mothers are rarely raising their children single-handedly. Instead, they have networks of friends and relatives and neighbors who care about them and their children, especially grandparents and have been part of their lives for years. Is this true statement?
Sara McLanahan: yes, it’s true that many single mothers have help from extended family. it’s also the case (in our study) that these mothers have many partnerships with ‘social fathers.’ as i mentioned in a previous answer, however, I’ve not seen good evidence that extended family involvement compensates for the absence of a biological father. moreover, there is good evidence that multiple partnerships are negatively associated with parenting quality and child wellbeing.

Laurie Maldonado: How are the children of single parents faring in other countries?
Sara McLanahan: the pattern of non-marital childbearing is the same in all western industrialized countries, that is, women with low education are more likely than women with high education to have children outside marriage. Although some studies (e.g. sweden) find no difference between children born to married and unmarried parents, a majority of studies find negative consequences for children raised by single mothers.