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Garfinkel and Colleagues Study Effect of Out-Of-Wedlock Births on Family Stability

By James Devitt

Professor Irwin Garfinkel

In 1998, approximately one third of all births in the United States were to unmarried parents, a nearly threefold increase from 1970, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. However, Columbia Social Work Professor Irwin Garfinkel argues that this trend obscures a significant and encouraging reality: the stability of the relationship between unmarried parents.

"It's appropriate to label these as families, at least at the time their babies are born," said Garfinkel. "This is because an overwhelming majority of unmarried parents are romantically involved and about one-half are living together. It's hopeful."

But this hope is tempered by socioeconomic factors that threaten the strength of unmarried parents' relationships.

"The fact is unmarried parents want to make a family life," says Garfinkel. "A large proportion want to get married. However, these families are fragile because they are not married and their ability to make a living is pretty low. Seventy-five percent of unmarried parents have a high-school education or less, making it difficult for them to find jobs that pay a livable wage."

Garfinkel's conclusions are based on preliminary data from a five-year, $17 million research effort, "The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study." The study, headed by Garfinkel and Sara McLanahan of Princeton, is an analysis of married and unmarried parents and their children in 20 large American cities, including New York and Newark, N.J. The mothers, and most of the fathers, are interviewed soon after the birth of their child and every year after that for four years to trace the stability of these families.

The researchers define fragile families as unmarried parents and their children, whether they are raising their children together or not. Such families are considered fragile because their risk of poverty and family instability is higher than that of married-couple families.

Garfinkel and the research team have set out to understand the conditions of fragile families and to find ways to increase household stability. They are examining the following areas: child health and development in fragile families, the economic and social conditions of unwed fathers and mothers, relationships between parents and between parents and children, the factors that encourage and discourage fathers' involvement in their children's lives and the role of government and community programs in promoting good parenting and healthy child development.

Ginfinkel is cautious in offering solutions to the upward trend in out-of-wedlock births. However, the initial findings suggest there may be a new role governmental agencies can play in combating this problem.

"The data are very well-suited to asking what the government can do to promote the importance of family life, such as through public awareness campaigns," Garfinkel said. "But it's too early in the study to make any specific recommendations."

The research is funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a consortium of foundations.

The study continues Garfinkel's research in the area of child support and single-parent families. His publications include Assuring Child Support (Russell Sage) and Single Mothers and Their Children: A New American Dilemma? (Urban Institute Press), which he co-authored with McClanahan. He also co-edited Fathers Under Fire: The Revolution in Child Support Enforcement (Russell Sage).

Published: Dec 11, 2000
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002


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