Perception Correction for Congress: New Study Indicates PoorParents Want to Marry

Report Marriage and Family

Perception Correction for Congress: New Study Indicates PoorParents Want to Marry

October 23, 2001 6 min read
Patrick Fagan

Congress will have an opportunity to promote marriage and family stability when it next takes up reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Act. Though this legislative action is not likely to occur until sometime next summer, Members of Congress should note the findings of a survey of unwed parents in New York City2 conducted last year by Sara McLanahan of Princeton University and Irwin Garfinkel of Columbia University. These findings suggest that efforts to encourage poor parents to marry have a greater potential for success than many policy analysts previously believed.

Remarkably, the "Fragile Families" Survey found that two-thirds of the fathers reported that they were cohabiting with the mother of their child, and nearly 90 percent of the fathers thought there was a high likelihood that they would marry.3 Slightly more fathers, in fact, responded positively to the concept of marriage than mothers. Two-thirds of the parents believed that marriage would be better for their children. The survey also found that, at the time their child was born, the majority of the parents were romantically involved and committed to raising their children.

Academic studies have demonstrated that children whose parents are married are healthier, have higher educational attainment, and are less likely to be on welfare or involved in crimes and drugs.4 With such findings in mind, Congress in 1996 reformed the nation's welfare system and directed states to use their surplus TANF funds to promote marriage among TANF recipients. Sadly, however, despite the large amounts of unspent TANF surplus monies available for this purpose today, only four of the 50 states have taken steps to strengthen marriage among the poor.

This new research evidence should encourage Members of Congress, when they consider TANF reauthorization next summer, to include a requirement that the states use a significant portion of their surplus funds to promote marriage.

Among the almost 300 unmarried couples in New York who were surveyed for The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study Baseline Report during the spring of 2000, 86 percent were found to be romantically involved: 53 percent of the mothers were cohabiting with the child's father at the time of the birth of their child, and another 33 percent were visiting each other regularly a few times each week. Half of the mothers had at least one other child.

Key Findings on Unmarried Fathers: 5

  • 66 percent of unmarried fathers are cohabiting with the mothers of their children.

  • 88 percent of the fathers who were interviewed6 believe that the chance of marrying the mother of their child is better than 50 percent.

  • 69 percent of fathers agree or strongly agree that marriage is better for children.

  • On average, these fathers are 3.44 years older than the mothers. They are more likely to be living above the poverty line, are slightly better educated, and have much higher rates of employment than do the unmarried mothers.

Key Findings on Unmarried Mothers:

  • 92 percent of mothers want the fathers involved in their children's lives and consider the fathers an integral part of their own lives and the lives of their children.

  • 86 percent of mothers are romantically involved with the fathers of their children (53 percent are cohabiting, and another 33 percent, though not cohabiting, are romantically involved, visiting each other several times per week).

  • 72 percent believe that their chances of marrying the father are better than 50 percent.

  • 64 percent agree or strongly agree that marriage is better for the child.

  • Mothers value the father much more for showing love and affection to their children than for contributing to the financial support of their children (57 percent vs. 37 percent).

Other Interesting Findings:

  • Of the key reasons given for getting married, both unmarried fathers and unmarried mothers rated "Having a steady job" and "Being emotionally mature" higher than all other factors surveyed.
  • The main causes of conflict in these unmarried relationships were disagreements over money, amount of time together, and sexual relations.

The "Fragile Family" survey of unwed parents in New York City indicates that policies encouraging marriage and strong families are likely to be well-received by unmarried poor parents. On the basis of this empirical evidence, many parents of out-of-wedlock children want to be married.

Combined with prior evidence that marriage is the best environment within which to raise healthy, well-adjusted children, these findings should motivate Members of Congress and the Administration to encourage the states to be innovative with their TANF funds to encourage more parents of out-of-wedlock children to marry and reverse existing policies that may discourage marriage.7

Patrick F. Fagan is the William H. G. FitzGerald Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at The Heritage Foundation.


1. The author wishes to thank Kate Natrass, Domestic Policy Intern at The Heritage Foundation, for her contributions to this study.

2. Sara McLanahan, Irwin Garfinkel, and Christina Norland Audigier, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study Baseline Report , Princeton and Columbia Universities, August 2001, at . This baseline report is part of the nationally representative Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey.

3. It is important to note that 72 percent of fathers responded to the survey, compared with almost 100 percent of the mothers. The fathers interviewed were likely to be more involved with their children than those who did not respond. This observation applies to all findings with respect to fathers in this paper.

4. For an overview of the effects of out-of-wedlock births on children, see Patrick F. Fagan, "Rising Illegitimacy: America's Social Catastrophe," Heritage Foundation F.Y.I . No. 19, June 29, 1994, and Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector, "The Effects of Divorce on America," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1373, June 5, 2000.

5. See note 3.

6. Some fathers would not or could not be interviewed. There is a strong probability that the fathers interviewed were a selection that were more responsible than the remaining members of the full group.

7. For more on the penalties on marriage, see testimony of C. Eugene Steuerle, Senior Fellow, Urban Institute, before the Subcommittee on Human Resources, Committee on Ways and Means, U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Cong., 1st Sess., May 22, 2001, at


Patrick Fagan