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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Introducing the Issue
Sara McLanahan Irwin Garfinkel Ronald B. Mincy Elisabeth Donahue


Nonmarital childbearing increased dramatically in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century, changing the context in which American children are raised. The proportion of all children born to unmarried parents grew tenfold over a seventy-year period—from about 4 percent in 1940 to nearly 40 percent in 2007. The overall impact of these changes has been greatest for African Americans and Hispanics, with seven out of ten black babies and half of Hispanic babies now being born to unmarried parents.1

In the 1990s, the term "fragile families" was coined to describe the reality of these new family arrangements.2 The word "family" signals that these partnerships are not simply casual encounters. As described below, most unmarried parents are in a romantic relationship at the time their child is born, with approximately 51 percent cohabiting and another 31 percent romantically involved but living apart. The word "fragile" signals that these partnerships face greater risks than more traditional families do in terms of their economic security and relationship stability.3 To understand fully the complexity of fragile families, however, it is important first to understand the decades-long debate over this issue.