Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study

Dates of RWJF Funding: February 1, 1998 through December 31, 2011

Description: In 1998 a research team based at Princeton and Columbia universities implemented a national, long-term study of the causes and consequences of nonmarital childbearing and have disseminated the resulting data and findings to the academic and policy-making communities. The study is ongoing.

Out-of-wedlock births increased dramatically in the latter 20th century, and the researchers sought to fill what they viewed as an information void about this growing group of at-risk parents and their children—what the team termed “fragile families.”

The team guided interviews with approximately 5,000 parents in 20 large U.S. cities when their babies were first born, and tracked the families through follow-up interviews when the children were one, three, five, and nine years old. Approximately three-quarters of the couples were unmarried at the time of birth; the married one-quarter served as a control group.

Key Findings

  • The study yielded several major findings about the characteristics of unmarried parents and explained how these relationships and other factors influence children’s development, as reported in the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study Fact Sheet:

    • “A large proportion of unmarried parents are in ‘marriage-like’ relationships at the time of their child’s birth.”

      Many unwed fathers visit the hospital after their child’s birth and are willing to be interviewed—presenting researchers with a “magic moment” to engage a group difficult to reach.
    • “Despite their high hopes, most parental relationships do not last, and as a result many children experience high levels of instability.”
    • “Relationship changes influence parental resources and contributions.”
    • “Unmarried parents are much more disadvantaged than married parents.”
    • “Children born to unmarried parents do not fare as well as children born to married parents.”

      Compared to mothers married at birth, unmarried mothers engaged in fewer literacy activities with their children, were more likely to use harsh discipline (yelling and spanking), and less likely to have a stable home routine (such as a regular bedtime).