Q&A with Sara McLanahan, on the Fragile Families Study

Oct 4, 2006
Woodrow Wilson School






This summer the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development awarded researchers at the Woodrow Wilson School $17 million to support a new round of data collection for the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The study is following a birth cohort of approximately 5,000 children born in the late 1990s and includes a large number of children born to unmarried parents.

The study was designed to address four questions of great interest to researchers and policy makers: What are the conditions and capabilities of unmarried parents, especially fathers? What is the nature of the relationships between unmarried parents? How do children born into these families fare? And, how do policies and environmental conditions affect families and children?

The researchers conducted initial interviews with mothers and fathers at the time of their child's birth, and have followed up with interviews with parents and child assessments when the children were ages three and five. The next data collection phase will involve interviewing the same families when their children are age nine, and will continue to collect information on parents' relationships and resources as well as child health and academic achievement.

Sara McLanahan, director of the Wilson School's Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing (CRCW) and the study's Principal Investigator, was interviewed by WWS External Affairs about the latest phase of the study and what it means for U.S. policy making.

Woodrow Wilson School (WWS) - What are some of the key findings of the study thus far?

Sara McLanahan (SM) - The big takeaway message is that a lot of unmarried parents are engaged in romantic relationships at the time their child is born, and many of these parents hope to marry and think their chances of marriage are very good. In short, many of these couples have "high hopes" in terms of their having a future together. That's pretty much been a surprise to a lot of people who thought non-marital births were the product of casual relationships. The other big finding is that unmarried parents are very disadvantaged; non-marital childbearing is not distributed evenly across the population. Forty percent of the parents don't even have a high school degree.

For example, unmarried fathers work nearly as many weeks as married fathers but they earn about half as much. They also have more mental health problems and more problems with drugs and alcohol. Thirty-five percent of unmarried fathers have been incarcerated, as compared to five percent of married fathers. So, the good news is that unmarried parents want to make it together as couples, at least at the time of the birth of their child, but the bad news is that they face serious economic, social and psychological barriers to maintaining a successful marriage.

An important implication of the study is that interventions to help these parents should begin at the time of the birth, when the parents are motivated. In the past, programs aimed at getting unmarried fathers more involved with their children have had very little success. In one well-known demonstration, the fathers who participated in the program did so because a judge said to them "either you go to the program or you go to jail." Not surprisingly, the program didn't have much effect on father involvement. The findings from the Fragile Families study underscore that importance of intervening at the time of the birth - what's been termed the "magic moment."

Importantly, the "magic moment" at birth provides an opportunity not only to help unmarried parents with their relationships and parenting skills, but also to help them with other issues such as employment, mental health and substance abuse problems, and so forth. Whatever problems these parents are facing, the birth of a new child is likely to increase their motivation to solve the problem.

WWS - Today the concept of marriage promotion is controversial - and the Bush administration is aggressively pursuing this policy of marriage promotion. How does the Fragile Families study inform the current policy debate?

SM - Interestingly, the study appeals to both liberals and conservatives although for different reasons. Conservatives like the fact that these unmarried couples do want to marry and are romantically involved when their child is born. This finding reinforces the idea that parents will respond positively to the new programs. Liberals like the fact that the data shows these parents are very disadvantaged and need services that go beyond relationship skills. Basically, the study informs the debate by providing a sense of when the program should begin and what range of services will need to be involved.

A certain pot of money has been set aside to evaluate a set of model programs aimed at strengthening marriage among fragile families. Mathematica Policy Research is conducting the evaluation. These model programs being examined are very much in line with a lot of the findings from the Fragile Families study. That is, they start at birth, they are designed to improve parents' relationship skills and teach them how to deal with conflict and stress, and they also provide other services when appropriate. These programs - if successful - will be very good models for the future.

WWS - What does success look like? Assuming a program is put in place to intervene at the magic moment, how will that help the unmarried parents and the child?

SM - The short term goal is to stabilize the parents' relationship; marriage of course is the gold standard. We know that people who marry do stay together much longer than people who don't. However, the point is not to get people to run down to city hall and get a marriage license and then get divorced. The point is to increase a set of skills that are known to be associated with union stability.

There's a good deal of evidence that marriage has benefits for adults as well as children. For example, men who are attached to their families are more likely to desist from crime. Marriage also improves men's earnings and overall health, including mental health. There's a whole slew of measurable, positive outcomes, not to mention the savings in terms of certain public costs; the costs that accrue from the negative aspects of broken families. Moreover, the social skills needed for a "good relationship" are likely to spill-over into other areas, including job performance, and so on.

WWS - What does this latest phase of the study entail?

SM - We're shifting a bit now and focusing more on the children. The children will be nine years old when we next see them; most will be in the fourth grade. They're at that point in school where they've learned to read, and now they're going to be reading to learn. The fourth grade is a very important time in school. We'll be interviewing the children's teachers to find out how the kids are doing and we'll also be interviewing the kids themselves.

Of course, the parental relationships will continue to change and we will continue to monitor these changes. With 9 years of data on these families, we'll be able to compare the unmarried parents who stayed together all these years with those who broke up and with those who married after the child was born. We'll also be able to compare these families with married parents who remained together and with those whose marriages broke up.

Another aspect of the study that's going to be very interesting is collecting DNA data for the children and the mothers. Recent research shows that certain genetic characteristics in combination with certain environmental conditions produce outcomes that only occur when both influences are operating. For example, researchers who have been following a birth cohort in New Zealand for 30 years have found that if children have a certain gene and are exposed to a very harsh environment growing up, their risk of being violent adults is much higher than that of other children. If a person has the gene and their environment is calm, or if they have a harsh environment but not the gene, their risk is no different from that of other children. My hope is that in the long term the new data from the Fragile Families Study will lead to a much better understanding of how these environmental effects work.

WWS - But fundamentally, why is the role of fathers so important?

SM - Well, that's a big question. You have to go back to the 1930s, when federal programs were enacted to aid families with children. These programs actually grew out of something called "mothers' pensions," which were set up by states in the early 20th century. At that time and really until 1960, the majority of single mothers were widows. So, the state and then the federal policies were designed to try to replace the income and security that the father had provided when he was alive.

After 1960, we see a large increase in divorce and non-marital child bearing, which means that the composition of single mothers changed from a majority of widowed single mothers to mostly divorced and never-married single mothers. But the policy didn't change very much; the fathers' were not part of the policy.

Things changed in the mid 1970s when the federal government set up the national office of Child Support Enforcement and began encouraging states to follow suit. Child support enforcement recognized that a large proportion of the fathers of the children living with single mothers were alive and able to make financial contributions to their child. Efforts to strengthen child support enforcement increased during the 1980s and 1990s, and have been quite successful by most accounts.

In response to stronger child support enforcement, "fathers' rights" groups began to organize in the 1980s. Many of these early groups were aimed at reducing child support obligations but they also argued for fathers' rights to visit their child. Initially, these groups were composed of middle class, formerly married fathers.

Then in the 1990s, the Ford Foundation, under the direction of Ron Mincy, became very active in advocating for low income, non-resident fathers. The foundation funded a national organization and multiple local groups for the purpose of encouraging father involvement and defending the rights of never-married - mostly low income - fathers. A major motivation for starting the Fragile Families study was to learn more about the capabilities of these fathers, the ways in which they contributed to their children, and the barriers they faced in being a part of their children's lives.

When President George W. Bush came into office, the focus shifted from fatherhood to marriage. This shift made sense in some ways since a few of the fatherhood programs in the 1990s were beginning to see that an important barrier to father involvement was the relationship between the father and mother, and some were developing strategies to encourage "team parenting." The idea behind these programs was that father involvement would increase if parents learned to cooperate.

Today, there's a realization that when a child is born fifty percent of the unmarried fathers are living with the mothers. In the grand scheme of things, I see these changes on the policy level as a growing recognition of the actual nature of the population being studied, and the relationships with which they're dealing. In other words, we've gone from the idea of a single-mother family where the mother and child are the clients, to the idea of fragile families where both parents and the child are the clients.

WWS - How does the study contribute to the School curriculum?

SM - Well, that's been a lot of fun. Because we have this exciting new data set here at Princeton, a lot of students have become interested in using the data for their own research. We have graduate students using the data to write Ph.D. theses and we have undergraduate students using the data for their senior theses. Next spring I'll be teaching a course in which the School's M.P.A. students will have an opportunity to use the data to examine issues related to poverty. In addition, we hold bi-monthly workshops where we video-conference between Princeton, Columbia University, and the University of Pennsylvania. It's been a great, collaborative experience.