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Children in Fragile Families


  • Sara McLanahan

    (Princeton University)


This paper uses data from the first four waves of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to examine the following questions: (1) what are unmarried parents? capabilities at the time of their child?s birth, and what is the nature of their relationship at birth and over time? (2) How do family structure and stability affect parental resources (financial and health)? (3) How do family structure and stability affect the level and quality of parental investments in children? And (4) how do family structure and stability affect children?s cognitive and socio-emotional development? We argue that although unmarried parents have ?high hopes? for their relationships at the time their child is born, low capabilities and distrust lead to high rates of union instability and growing family complexity. Instability and complexity, in turn, reduce parental resources by lowering parental resources (financial and health), paternal investments, and the quality of mothers? parenting, all of which undermine children?s cognitive and socio-emotional development. At the aggregate level, these pathways explain how non-marital childbearing contributes to the persistence of disadvantage across generations.

Suggested Citation

  • Sara McLanahan, 2009. "Children in Fragile Families," Working Papers 1191, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing..
  • Handle: RePEc:pri:crcwel:wp09-16-ff.pdf

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Marcia Carlson & Sara Mclanahan & Paula England, 2004. "Union formation in fragile families," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 41(2), pages 237-261, May.
    2. Marcia Carlson & Sara McLanahan & Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, 2008. "Coparenting and nonresident fathers’ involvement with young children after a nonmarital birth," Demography, Springer;Population Association of America (PAA), vol. 45(2), pages 461-488, May.
    3. Kiernan, Kathleen E. & Huerta, Maria Carmen, 2008. "Economic deprivation, maternal depression, parenting and children's cognitive and emotional development in early childhood," LSE Research Online Documents on Economics 43720, London School of Economics and Political Science, LSE Library.
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    More about this item


    Fragile families; childbearing; nonmarital childbearing; family structure; family stability;

    JEL classification:

    • D19 - Microeconomics - - Household Behavior - - - Other
    • D63 - Microeconomics - - Welfare Economics - - - Equity, Justice, Inequality, and Other Normative Criteria and Measurement
    • J12 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Marriage; Marital Dissolution; Family Structure
    • J15 - Labor and Demographic Economics - - Demographic Economics - - - Economics of Minorities, Races, Indigenous Peoples, and Immigrants; Non-labor Discrimination
    • I30 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Welfare, Well-Being, and Poverty - - - General


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