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Journal Issue: Fragile Families Volume 20 Number 2 Fall 2010

Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families
Ariel Kalil Rebecca M. Ryan

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. By contrast, married mothers' annual household income was $55,057.

Material Hardship in Fragile Families
Researchers have long argued that official poverty statistics fail to capture the depth of economic hardship faced by unwed mothers.2 Consequently, many researchers also examine how fragile families fare along such dimensions as food sufficiency, ability to pay bills, and hardships such as having heat or electricity disconnected. Julien Teitler and several colleagues examined data from the FFCWS during the years 1999–2001 and found that many unwed mothers experienced some material hardships.3 Common concerns were not having enough income to pay bills (32 percent), not being able to pay utility bills (25 percent), and having phone service disconnected (17 percent). Roughly 5 percent of the unwed mothers reported more extreme financial difficulties such as hunger, eviction, utility shut-offs, homelessness, or insufficient medical care. Most important, more than half of the unwed mothers in the sample reported at least one type of hardship.