Demographics of Non-married Parents

The Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Survey1) is a nationwide effort to collect data on both married and non-married parents at the time of a child’s birth. The 2001 survey reveals that most of the claims about non-married parents are widely inaccurate.

Some 38 percent of the mothers in the Fragile Families Study were not married at the time of their child’s birth. Popular opinion sees out-of-wedlock childbearing as occurring mainly to young girls of high-school age who lack stable relationships with their child’s father. This perception is erroneous. The median age for mothers who give birth outside marriage is 22.

Nor are non-married mothers alone and isolated at the time of birth. As Table 1 shows, nearly 50 percent of these mothers are cohabiting with the expectant father at around the time of the child’s birth. Another 23 percent describe themselves as “romantically involved” with the father, although the couple is not cohabiting.

The characteristics of non-married fathers who are cohabiting or romantically involved with the mother are generally more favorable than the popular stereotype. (See Table 2.) Around 67 percent of the fathers have at least a high-school degree. Some 97 percent were employed during the prior year, and 82 percent were employed at the time of the child’s birth. The median annual income of these romantically involved/cohabiting fathers was between $15,000 and $20,000.

While some fathers do have drug and alcohol problems, the level is less than might be expected: Around 12 percent of the mothers report arguing with their boyfriends about a drug or alcohol problem in the last month; 2.5 percent report that drugs or alcohol impede the boyfriend’s ability to hold a job.

On average, the non-married expectant fathers have higher earnings than the expectant mothers in the year before the child’s birth. The median wage rate of fathers is $8.55 per hour, compared to $7.00 per hour for the mothers.2)

Nearly all couples that are romantically involved or cohabiting are interested in developing a long-term, stable relationship. Some 95 percent believe that there is at least a 50/50 chance they will marry in the future.

According to the data in the Fragile Families study, if non-married women married the fathers of their new children around the time of the child’s birth, child poverty would be greatly reduced. Marriage would reduce the probability that mothers will live in poverty by at least two-thirds, and would lift the incomes of many mothers above 150 percent of the poverty level. As a new strategy for reducing child poverty and improving child well-being, policies should promote healthy marriages.

Unmarried Mothers and Fathers

1) For a detailed description of the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, see The Fragile Families Study is a survey of roughly 4,700 new and in many cases unwed parents. Information about them and their new children will be tracked over the course of five years. The analysis here deals only with the first year or “baseline” survey.
2) The wage rates for the mothers are inferred, based on the last job they held, given that most of these women would be on maternity leave or another work break at the time of the survey.

This entry draws heavily from Increasing Marriage will Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty.