Restoring a Culture of Marriage

Report Marriage and Family

Restoring a Culture of Marriage

June 13, 2002 22 min read

Authors: Jennifer Garrett and Patrick Fagan

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 marriage.

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.

The first round of data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study1 --a 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:2

  • 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 following:

  • 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 living arrangements

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."3 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 fragile families.

What the Fragile Families Survey shows

The 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.4 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 2000.5 (See text box for additional details.)

As 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.6 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 two-parent families.

Key Findings on Marriage and Commitment

One 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.7 Specifically:

  • 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).8
  • 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.9
  • 64 percent of the unmarried mothers and 73 percent of the fathers agreed or strongly agreed that marriage is better for children.10
  • 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.11
  • 79 percent of the unmarried mothers and 89 percent of the fathers said the child would use the father's surname.12
  • 93 percent of the unwed mothers reported that they wanted the father involved in raising their
    child.13 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.14
  • 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.15

The 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 marry:

  • 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.16
  • The rate of reported abuse was lowest among those who intended to marry and who did not cohabit (1.6 percent).17
  • 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 percent).18
  • 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).19
  • 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).20 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 Education

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.21
  • 98 percent of the fathers had worked in the previous year, and 72 percent had worked in the week prior to the survey.22
  • 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 mother.23

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 birth certificate.
  • 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 high school.
  • The father is working.

The 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.24

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 need.

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;25 after that initial success, Wisconsin was able to focus resources on those who needed more help to move from dependency to work.

A 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.26

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 families.

The 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 so.27 The President's proposals would provide the encouragement many of these parents need. It specifically requests funds for:28

  • Public advertising campaigns on the value of marriage and the skills that increase marital stability and health.
  • 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.
  • Marriage enhancement and marriage skills training programs for married couples.
  • Divorce reduction programs that teach relationship skills.
  • Marriage mentoring programs that use married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk communities.
  • 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

The 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 single-parent family.

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.29

To jump start the process of rebuilding fragile families, Congress should:

  • Approve 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 marry.
  • 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.30


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.

It 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 President's standards.

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

1. The Fragile Families Survey and the reports based on it and cited here can be found at the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing Web site, The term "fragile families" underscores the fact that unmarried parents and their children are at greater risk for poverty and behavioral problems than are two-parent married families. The survey follows newborns and their parents over four years. Data reported here reflect baseline interviews on these children and their parents that were completed by the fall of 2000.

2. See Sara McLanahan, Irwin Garfinkel, Nancy E. Reichman, Julien Teitler, Marcia Carlson, and Christina Norland Audigier, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study Baseline Report: The National Report, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, August 2001, reporting their "preliminary national estimates," Table 2. Cited hereafter as National Report.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid., Table 1. For additional information on this subject, see also Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.D., and Patrick F. Fagan, "The Effect of Marriage on Child Poverty," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA02-04, April 15, 2002, at

5. Baseline interviews for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study have been conducted in 75 hospitals in 20 cities across the United States: Austin, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio, Texas; Baltimore, Maryland; Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Indianapolis, Indiana; Jacksonville, Florida; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Nashville, Tennessee; Newark, New Jersey; New York, New York; Norfolk and Richmond, Virginia; Oakland and San Jose, California; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Toledo, Ohio.

6. See Fragile Families Survey, "Study Design," at

7. See McLanahan et al., National Report, p. 3. The authors report the survey findings for interviews of 2,670 unmarried couples in 16 cities.

8. Ibid., Table 2. The findings reflect the level of cohabiting depending on who was being interviewed: mothers alone, mothers in the company of the fathers, or fathers alone.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., Table 3.

12. Ibid.

13. Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Social Indicators Survey Center, "Dispelling Myths about Unmarried Fathers," Fragile Families Research Brief No. 1, May 2000.

14. Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Social Indicators Survey Center, "Father Involvement, Maternal Health Behavior and Infant Health," Fragile Families Research Brief No. 5, January 2001.

15. McLanahan et al., National Report, Table 4.

16. Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Social Indicators Survey Center, "Dispelling Myths about Unmarried Fathers."

17. Cynthia Osborne, "A New Look at Unmarried Families: Diversity in Human Capital, Attitudes and Relationship Quality," Center for Research on Child Wellbeing Working Paper No. 02-02-FF, April 2002, Table 4, p. 25. Cited with permission. "Abuse" here includes both physical and emotional abuse. Later studies intend to separate these data.

18. Ibid. These data are similar to findings from the 1999 National Crime Victimization Survey, in which women with children under 12 years of age experienced domestic violence at a rate of 3.8 per 1,000, compared with 32.9 per 1,000 for their never-married peers. See Patrick F. Fagan and Kirk Johnson, Ph.D., "Marriage: The Safest Place for Women and Children," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1535, April 10, 2002, at

19. Osborne, "A New Look at Unmarried Families."

20. Ibid.

21. McLanahan et al., National Report, Table 1.

22. Ibid.

23. Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Social Indicators Survey Center, "Unwed Fathers, the Underground Economy and Child Support Policy," Center for Research on Child Wellbeing Fragile Families Research Brief No. 3, January 2001.

24. Ronald B. Mincey and Allen T. Dupree, "Can the Next Step in Welfare Reform Achieve PRWORA's Fourth Goal? Family Formation in Fragile Families," Center for Research on Child Wellbeing Working Paper No. 00-23-FF, December 2000.

25. Robert E. Rector and Sarah E. Youssef, "The Determinants of Welfare Caseload Decline," Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA99-04, May 11, 1999, at

26. Recent reports that the welfare reforms have discouraged marriage do not tell the whole story. See, for example, Nina Bernstein, "Strict Limits on Welfare Benefits Discourage Marriage, Studies Say," The New York Times (regional edition), June 3, 2002. It should be noted that the studies reported by the article did not take into account the effects of the stringent penalties in current means-tested programs that couples face if they marry while on welfare.

27. McLanahan et al., National Report, Table 2.

28. As described in H.R. 4737, Section 103, Promotion of Family Formation and Healthy Marriage. The bill, which was passed by the House, was referred to the Senate on May 16, 2002; see

29. As reported in Maggie Gallagher, "Marriage Polls and Pols," at

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


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Jennifer Garrett

Former Research Associate

Patrick Fagan

Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow