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Fragile Families in the US and UK

  • Kathleen Kiernan

    (University of York)

  • Sara McLanahan

    (Princeton University)

  • John Holmes

    (University of York)

  • Melanie Wright

    (Princeton University)

Registered author(s):

    Non-marital childbearing has increased dramatically over the past several decades in both the US and the UK. In 2008, 45 percent of British children were born outside of marriage, up from 8 percent in 1971. A similar trend appears in the US, with 41 percent of births in 2008 occurring to unmarried mothers, up from 11 percent in 1971. Whereas a great deal has been written about the causes of these trends, surprisingly little is known about the conditions and experiences of the parents and children in these families. In this paper we compare and contrast families formed by married and unmarried parents during the first five years after child’s birth. An emerging body of research indicates that children’s experiences in infancy and early childhood have lasting consequences for their future health and development (Shonkoff and Phillips 2000); a second literature indicates that parental resources and partnerships play a large role in shaping children’s early experiences (Duncan and Magnuson 2005). Together, these two bodies of research suggest that in order to understand the long-run implications of the increase in non-marital childbearing for parents, children and society, we must understand how the parents and children in these families are doing during the first five years after birth. This paper compares and contrasts families formed by unmarried parents in the UK and the UK by addressing several questions: What is the nature of parental relationships and what are parents’ characteristics and capabilities at the time their child is born? What happens to parental relationships over time? What happens to mothers’ economic and psychological resources; What happens to non-resident fathers’ contributions over time? How do children fare, and how do family structure and stability influence the quality of mothers’ parenting and children’s wellbeing? To answer these questions, we rely on data from two birth cohort studies that follow children from the time they are born to the time they enter kindergarten: the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which has been following approximately 18,800 children born in the UK at the turn of the twenty first century, and the Fragile Families Study (FFS), which has being following approximately 5,000 children born in US cities between 1998 and 2000. Both of these studies contain rich information about the quality and stability of parental relationships, and both studies contain extensive information on parental resources parental behavior and children’s wellbeing. Both studies also oversample for disadvantaged families. Given their overlap in questions and measures and their similarity in samples, these two data sets are ideal for comparing families formed by unmarried couples in the two countries. More detailed information about these two studies can be found for the MCS in Hansen et al. (2008) and for the FFS in Reichman et al. (2001).

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    Paper provided by Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing. in its series Working Papers with number 1299.

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    Date of creation: Feb 2011
    Date of revision:
    Handle: RePEc:pri:crcwel:wp11-04-ff
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    1. Cynthia Osborne & Sara McLanahan, 2007. "Partnership Instability and Child Well-being," Working Papers 946, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Center for Research on Child Wellbeing..
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