Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families

By Kalil, Ariel; Ryan, Rebecca M. | The Future of Children, Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families


Kalil, Ariel, Ryan, Rebecca M., The Future of Children


As rates of nonmarital childbirth have increased in the United States in the past half-century, a new family type, the fragile family, has emerged. Fragile families, which are formed as the result of a nonmarital birth, include cohabiting couples as well as noncohabiting, or single, mothers. Such families evoke public concern in part because they are more impoverished and endure more material hardship than married-parent families and have fewer sources of economic support. Father absence and family instability are also cause for concern. The economic fragility of these families stems largely from mothers' and fathers' relatively low skills and training, which often pose barriers to higher-wage work. Fragile families also have almost no financial assets. In this article, we describe the economic challenges facing mothers in fragile families and the resources they call upon to meet these challenges.

We begin by summarizing economic conditions in fragile families using the most recent data available. Next, we suggest reasons why mothers in fragile families face so much poverty and material hardship, focusing especially on their living arrangements, employment capacities, and assets. We go on to explain how, given their economic conditions and capacities, mothers in fragile families make ends meet in their households. Specifically, we describe the sources of public and private support available to them and the role each plays in mothers' economic survival.

Economic Conditions in Fragile Families

As Sara McLanahan has observed, until recently it was unclear where along the spectrum of economic conditions and capabilities the nation's fragile families were to be found. (1) Were these unwed U.S. parents similar to married parents in terms of their capabilities, thus resembling unwed parents in Scandinavia, whose capabilities are generally high? Or were they low-skilled individuals living in what might be described as a "poor man's marriage"? Extensive research from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS), the ongoing study of 5,000 children in large U.S. cities, three-quarters of whom were born to unwed parents, has shown that U.S. unwed-couple families fall closer to the disadvantaged end of the spectrum.

The economic well-being of fragile families varies somewhat by living arrangement (that is, whether couples live together or apart), but living arrangements do not necessarily cause differences in economic well-being; indeed they are equally likely to result from them. Unwed mothers and fathers with the highest education and earnings potential are more likely to choose to cohabit with one another than to choose to live apart. Consequently, they have somewhat higher levels of economic well-being than their counterparts who have chosen to live apart or who must, out of economic necessity, double-up with other adults. Nevertheless, even cohabiting unwed couples experience serious economic hardship.

Poverty in Fragile Families

Table 1 describes the economic and demographic characteristics of the three different types of mothers in the FFCWS. About a quarter are married. The unmarried mothers are divided into two groups: those in a cohabiting relationship with their child's father and those who are single, that is, not cohabiting with the father. Because about half the mothers in fragile families are cohabiting at their child's birth and half are not, the average for all unmarried mothers is about halfway between figures for each of those two groups.

As the table indicates, a defining feature of fragile families is their high poverty rates. At the inception of the FFCWS, 33 percent of mothers cohabiting with the child's father and 53 percent of single mothers in the sample were poor, compared with only 14 percent of married mothers. Not surprisingly, fragile families' average household incomes are low. The annual household income of cohabiting mothers in fragile families was $26,548, and that of single mothers in the sample was $18,662. …

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