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Op-Ed

The fragile family effect

It's instability, not poverty, that does the greater damage to children.

November 11, 2010|By Kay S. Hymowitz

Poverty is on the rise, according to census data, and now affects 14.3% of the population, up from 13.2% in 2008. A stumbling economy obviously explains the recent uptick. But those who think that poor urban families' problems have an economic fix would do well to pick up the fall issue of the Future of Children, a journal jointly published by the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution (I sit on its advisory board). The articles in the issue are based on findings from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which has followed 5,000 children and their urban, primarily minority parents since the kids were born in the late 1990s. The study constitutes the most extensive, long-term database on the family lives of the urban poor we've ever had, and the dismal picture that it paints of low-income, unmarried couples and their children has nothing to do with the Great Recession.

One of the study's most surprising initial findings was that the large majority — 80% — of poor, unmarried couples were romantically involved at the time of their child's birth. In fact, 50% of the couples were living together. Fathers almost always visited the mothers and children in the hospital and usually provided financial support. Even better, most of these new parents said that there was a 50-50 chance that they would eventually marry each other. They spoke highly of their partners' commitment to their children and of their supportiveness.

But within five years, a tiny 15% of the unmarried couples had taken wedding vows, while a whopping 60% had split up. At the five-year mark, only 36% of the children lived with their fathers, and half of the other 64% hadn't seen their dads in the last month. One-half to two-thirds of the absent fathers provided little or no financial support.

A parental breakup is hard enough on kids, but the prevalence of what experts call "multipartner fertility" is salt in their wounds. By the time the children were 5, 20% of their mothers had a child by a different man; 27% of the kids were living with their mother's new live-in partner. These relationships tended to reduce father involvement: Dads are less likely to come around when a new man is in the house. In the long run, it's not even clear that the new boyfriends are good for the women involved, because mothers with children by more than one man "reported significantly less available [financial] support than those with children by one man."

Adding to the child-unfriendly atmosphere are the many fathers who go on to have children with other women. The journal reports that men with children in a new relationship spend less time and money on their previous children. One study also found — no surprise — that the quality of "co-parenting" declines when a new girlfriend or boyfriend enters the picture. Breakups turn out to be hard on men too; men living with their children worked longer hours and earned more, while those who moved out were more likely to become unemployed.

And what do we know about the effect of all this on children? The Fragile Families kids growing up with single mothers have more behavior problems than those with two parents; those problems worsen with every "transition" — that is, every new relationship and breakup. There's even evidence that instability affects children's cognitive performance. Worst of all, children growing up with a boyfriend or stepdad in the house are at greater risk of abuse, a fact horribly demonstrated in Brooklyn recently when 2-year-old Aiyden Davis died as a result of beatings by his mother's boyfriend.

Eventually, the economy will improve. That's not likely to change much for the children in fragile families.

Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor of City Journal and a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. This piece is adapted from the 20th anniversary issue of City Journal.

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