President George W. Bush has taken the
first bold step in reshaping federal policy to address the root
cause of many of society's ills: the breakdown of the married,
two-parent family. Specifically, he has requested nearly $300
million a year in the reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families (TANF) Act for efforts that promote
Though critics of the proposal claim that
most single parents do not have strong desires or the wherewithal
to marry, most of their assertions are to a large extent unfounded.
As recently released data from an ongoing longitudinal survey of
new parents show, a majority of unwed mothers and fathers not only
have a strong desire to marry, but also believe the chances are
good that they will. What these new parents need is more
encouragement and preparation to realize their hopes.
first round of data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing
four-year project of Princeton University's Center for Research on
Child Wellbeing and Columbia University's Social Indicators Survey
Center--already shows the promising potential for federal-state
efforts to reduce out-of-wedlock births, especially among the poor.
For example, according to the survey:
- Contrary to public opinion, the
overwhelming majority of children born out of wedlock have parents
who are living together or who are romantically involved or seeing
each other on a regular basis; they are not born to single mothers
with absentee fathers.
- Moreover, a majority of unwed mothers say
they are interested in marrying the father and believe they have a
50 percent chance of doing so, and an even greater percentage of
these fathers believe their chances to be the same.
Thus, there exists within fragile families
a very large group of parents who are likely to participate in
programs that would prepare them for marriage.
The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is a joint
academic survey of new parents conducted by a team of researchers
at Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing
and Columbia University's Social Indicators Survey Center. The team
is headed by notable husband-and-wife sociologists Sara McLanahan
and Irwin Garfinkel. The survey will follow a birth cohort of
children and their parents over a four-year period.
The baseline interviews began in Austin, Texas, and Oakland,
California, in the spring of 1998 and were completed in the final
cities by the fall of 2000. The baseline dataset includes 4,898
completed mother interviews (3,712 non-marital births and 1,186
marital births) and 3,830 complete father interviews.
New mothers were interviewed at the hospital within 48 hours of
giving birth; fathers were interviewed either at the hospital or
elsewhere as soon as possible after the birth. Three follow-up
interviews are to be conducted when the children are approximately
12, 30, and 48 months of age. The national sample from 20 U.S.
cities is representative of all non-marital births to parents in
these cities as well as parents residing in U.S. cities with
populations over 200,000.
Researchers expect to release follow-up data from the 12-month
survey in the spring of 2003 and 30-month data in the fall of 2004.
The study's authors believe that the survey will provide
"previously unavailable information" on such questions as the
- What are the conditions and capabilities of new unwed parents,
especially fathers? How many of these men hold steady jobs? How
many want to be involved in raising their children?
- What is the nature of the relationship between unwed parents?
How many couples are involved in stable, long-term relationships?
How many expect to marry? How many experience high levels of
conflict or domestic violence?
- What factors push new unwed parents together? What factors pull
them apart? How do public policies affect parents' behaviors and
Members of Congress should study these
survey data carefully in considering the President's request for
marriage-related funding in the reauthorization of TANF. As the
authors of the preliminary national report on the findings suggest,
policymakers could use the data to "design programs that
encourage--rather than undermine--the efforts of new parents to
raise healthy children, maintain self-sufficiency, and make
productive contributions to their communities." By funding initiatives that
educate people on the benefits of marriage and encourage unwed
parents to acquire the skills for stable marriages, Congress can
jump start the process of rebuilding a culture of marriage in
America and improving the prospects for millions of America's most
What the Fragile Families Survey
Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study is designed to provide
longitudinal data on the conditions and capabilities of new
unmarried parents and the consequences of these factors on their
children's well-being. The survey, which follows a
cohort of newborn children over the first four years of life,
finished conducting the baseline interviews on a nationally
representative sample of almost 5,000 mothers and 4,000 fathers in
20 cities--including a group of married parents in each city for
comparison--by the fall of 2000. (See text box for additional
the Fragile Families Study Web site explains, the survey's findings
can address three primary issues of great interest today:
out-of-wedlock childbearing, welfare reform, and the role of
fathers in a child's well-being. As many studies point out,
many children who are born out of wedlock and spend some time on
welfare with little support from their fathers experience
behavioral problems and do poorly in school. Clearly, policymakers
have reason to examine not only the causes of family breakdown that
impose such heavy costs on children and society, but also the very
policies they enact that actually undermine the formation of
Key Findings on Marriage and
of the most significant findings in the preliminary report on the
first follow-up interviews is that many of the unwed parents of the
children in the study are committed to each other.
- 83 percent of unwed mothers reported being
romantically involved with the father at the time of their child's
birth and are either cohabiting (50 percent) or seeing each other
frequently each week (33 percent).
- 73 percent of unmarried mothers and 88
percent of the fathers of their children believed they had a 50-50
chance of marrying each other.
- 64 percent of the unmarried mothers and 73
percent of the fathers agreed or strongly agreed that marriage is
better for children.
- 84 percent of the unmarried mothers and 93
percent of the fathers said they put the father's name on the
child's birth certificate.
- 79 percent of the unmarried mothers and 89
percent of the fathers said the child would use the father's
- 93 percent of the unwed mothers reported
that they wanted the father involved in raising their
Furthermore, all of the cohabiting fathers and 96 percent of
fathers romantically attached to the mothers but not living with
them said they intended to stay involved with their child.
- A majority of the unmarried mothers (65
percent) identified "showing love and affection to the child" as
the most important quality the father could offer the child. Nearly
half of the fathers ranked this quality first (49 percent), and
only 12 percent of these couples said that providing financial
support was the most important contribution the father could make
to the child.
pattern of positive attitudes toward marriage that emerges for
these parents is encouraging. The majority intended to marry and
believed marriage is important for the welfare of their child. Of
particular interest, and contrary to common rhetoric, is the fact
that fathers were even more likely to report a positive outlook on
marriage than the mothers were.
Key Findings on Domestic Violence
There is good news in these initial data
on the incidence of domestic violence in fragile families, which
also suggests that these unmarried parents are more likely to
- Only 5 percent of unmarried mothers said
that the child's father was violent, and only 6.7 percent said that
the fathers had drug or alcohol problems.
- The rate of reported abuse was lowest
among those who intended to marry and who did not cohabit (1.6
- The rate of abuse was the same among
parents cohabiting with an intention of marrying (2.2 percent) as
among those parents in the control group who did marry (2.3
- The rate of abuse is more than four times
higher among those who cohabit and do not intend to marry or who
think it is unlikely they will marry (9.3 percent) than among those
who cohabit and intend to marry (2.2 percent).
- Among romantically involved ("visiting")
couples who do not intend to marry and who do not live together,
the rate of abuse is more than four times higher (7.4 percent) than
among those who are romantically involved and intend to marry (1.6
percent). There is no significant
difference between the rates for cohabitors and visitors with plans
to marry and married parents.
Key Findings on Employment, Earnings, and
There is also good news in the data with
regard to the earnings potential of fragile families--a factor that
could contribute to a decision to marry. For example:
- 66 percent of the fathers and 63 percent
of the unwed mothers had a high school education or more.
- 98 percent of the fathers had worked in
the previous year, and 72 percent had worked in the week prior to
- The fathers who were living with the
baby's mother earned on average $3,000 more per year than the
romantically involved fathers who were not living with the baby's
The Potential for Marriage
Based on various reports of the Fragile
Families survey data posted on the study's Web site, it is possible
to summarize factors that indicate which unwed parents would be
more likely to marry. These factors include the following:
- The unwed parents intend to marry and
either live together or are romantically involved.
- The father's last name is on the child's
- Both parents want the father to remain
involved with his child.
- Both parents believe the father's most
important contribution is to show the child his affection.
- Both the father and mother have completed
- The father is working.
more these factors are present in a couple, the more likely it is
that they will be good candidates for marriage preparation or
support programs. The number of those who are clearly not good
marriage prospects--couples with fathers who are abusive to their
mates or who use drugs--is actually relatively small.
Are Expectations Too High?
Although the majority of unmarried parents
surveyed for the Fragile Families Study believe that marriage is
most advantageous for their children, various researchers report
that their expectations for marriage frequently are not borne out
by what actually occurs. For example, while 46 percent of mothers
interviewed before their child's birth intended to marry the
father, only about 24 percent did. And whereas only 28 percent of
mothers had intended to cohabit with the father after the child's
birth, 35 percent actually did.
These findings should be seen not as
discouraging, but as confirming the need to address the impact of
federal and state policies so that they provide encouragement and
skills training rather than act as a hindrance to the poor who want
to marry. The President's proposals would help to fill this
Lessons from Welfare Reform
Social policy matters. Perhaps the best
example of how bad social policy encourages the kinds of behaviors
it is meant to eliminate is the old system of welfare that Congress
wisely reformed in 1996. Following the success of Wisconsin's
reforms that tied welfare benefits to work, Temporary Assistance
for Needy Families funding allowed the states to focus on those
people on the rolls who were most likely to find and hold a job. In
Wisconsin, this approach had quickly reduced caseloads by about
one-third; after that initial success,
Wisconsin was able to focus resources on those who needed more help
to move from dependency to work.
similar approach makes sense for restoring a culture of marriage
among unwed parents in fragile families, most of whom are likely to
be receiving some government benefits. As the findings from the
Fragile Families Study demonstrate, it is possible to identify
which unwed parents are most marriageable in order to focus
resources on programs that would help them acquire the skills and
support they need for a successful marriage.
The President's Proposals
Because he recognizes the benefits of
stable unions for parents, children, and the nation, President Bush
hopes to make rebuilding a culture of marriage a focus of national
policy. His current initiative requests nearly $300 million in
federal and state TANF money to target state-level programs that
promote marriage and marriage skills, particularly among fragile
initial findings of the Fragile Families Survey indicate that not
only do most unwed mothers have a strong desire to marry the father
of their child, but they believe they have a fair chance of doing
President's proposals would provide the encouragement many of these
parents need. It specifically requests funds for:
- Public advertising campaigns on the value
of marriage and the skills that increase marital stability and
- High school education on the value of
marriage, relationship skills, and budgeting.
- Marriage and relationship skills programs
that include parenting skills, financial management, conflict
resolution, and job and career advancement for non-married pregnant
women and non-married expectant fathers.
- Premarital education and marriage skills
training for engaged couples and couples interested in
- Marriage enhancement and marriage skills
training programs for married couples.
- Divorce reduction programs that teach
- Marriage mentoring programs that use
married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk
- Programs to reduce the disincentives to
marriage in means-tested aid programs if offered in conjunction
with any activity described above.
President Bush's proposal also would
enable the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as well as
the states, local governments, and private organizations, to better
understand how public policy can promote families in which
children's well-being is secure.
How Congress Can Help
findings of the Fragile Families Survey shatter the myths that most
unwed mothers and fathers are uninvolved and that most unwed
fathers do not care about their children's well-being. More
important, the data show that the majority of these unmarried
parents are romantically involved, are interested in marriage,
consider their chances of getting married good, and agree that a
two-parent married family is better for their child than a
Congress clearly has an opportunity, in
reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Act,
to use this research to fund programs that support marriage. The
need for such action is further indicated by a May 6 Opinion
Research Corporation poll, which found that Americans
overwhelmingly believe that out-of-wedlock births harm children,
families, and communities.
jump start the process of rebuilding fragile families, Congress
the President's request for $300 million per year in TANF funding
for initiatives that encourage and support marriage.
- Disregard the straw-man objection that
the President's proposal would lead to an increase in domestic
violence. The Fragile Families findings indicate that the incidence
of domestic violence is minimal among unwed parents who intend to
- Seek to
reduce the penalties on marriage that remain in means-tested
federal welfare programs. These include penalties in the Earned
Income Tax Credit (EITC) and on the receipt of food stamps and
public housing and other programs that reduce benefits according to
household income, thereby discouraging couples from marrying.
Members of Congress should recognize from
the wealth of social science research that the most effective way
to reduce child poverty and increase child well-being is to
increase the number of stable two-parent married families. The
findings of the Princeton University and Columbia University
Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study show that many unwed
mothers have high expectations for the future of their children and
their own chances of marrying their child's father. The findings
show that a majority of unwed fathers want to be involved in their
child's life and also have hopes for marriage.
is time for Congress to implement policies and programs that would
help such couples make a permanent commitment to each other and
their children, and begin reaping the emotional, health,
educational, social, and economic benefits of marriage. In
reauthorizing the TANF Act, Congress should include the $300
million per year for marriage-based programs that meet the
Patrick F. Fagan is
William H. G. FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural
Issues at The Heritage Foundation.