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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

Why Are Fragile Families Economically Disadvantaged?

Three primary factors shape the rates of poverty and material hardship facing mothers in fragile families: their earnings capacity, their asset levels, and their living arrangements.

Mothers' Earnings Capacity
Mothers in fragile families typically earn low wages. As table 1 indicates, in the first year of the FFCWS, both cohabiting and single mothers earned approximately $11,000, far less than the $26,000 married mothers earned. These differences emerge even though most mothers in fragile families work extensively. Indeed, fully 80 percent of cohabiting, single, and married mothers in the study reported having worked in the previous year. Melissa Radey's more recent analysis of mothers in the FFCWS showed that more than half of the unmarried mothers were employed full time three years after a nonmarital birth and 64 percent were employed at least part time.4 Thus, although it is the norm for mothers in fragile families to work, they still suffer economically because their earnings are typically low.

Demographic Characteristics That Limit Earnings Capacity Unwed mothers face many barriers to higher-wage employment, but the primary obstacle is poor education. As table 1 shows, about 41 percent of cohabiting mothers and about 49 percent of single mothers in the FFCWS lack a high school diploma (compared with only 18 percent of married mothers) and only 2.4 percent of the unwed mothers have a college degree (compared with 36 percent of the married mothers). Importantly, Carol Ann MacGregor documented that between 40 and 47 percent of unwed mothers in the FFCWS reported being in school during at least one interview period during the first five years of the study and that about 40 percent of this population completed an educational or training program of some type during that time.5 It has not yet been established, however, whether the returns to education and program completion among the mothers in the FFCWS sample have translated into higher earnings and economic security.

A second barrier to higher-wage employment typically faced by mothers in fragile families is that they are disproportionately young and more likely to be in their teens at the time of their first birth. As shown in table 1, 18 percent of the cohabiting mothers in the sample and 34 percent of single mothers were teen parents, compared with only about 4 percent of the married mothers. Because having a child at a young age can disrupt educational attainment, it is not surprising that such parents would have less success in the labor market and experience greater economic difficulties as a result. Moreover, despite being relatively young, it is not uncommon for unwed mothers in FFCWS to have children with multiple partners. Table 1 shows that among mothers in fragile families with more than one child, 39 percent of cohabiting mothers and 35 percent of single mothers had a child by another father, compared with only 12 percent of married mothers. Though it is not yet clear what the implications of having children with multiple partners are for unwed families' economic conditions, multipartner fertility is associated in the FFCWS with lower levels of economic support from family, friends, and former partners, a dynamic we discuss further in the next section.6

Psychosocial Characteristics That Limit Earnings Capacity That unmarried parents in the FFCWS report higher rates of poor overall health, emotional problems, and drug use than married parents points to another explanation for their lower earnings capacity.7 For instance, as shown in table 1, 14 percent of cohabiting mothers are in poor or fair health, compared with 17 percent of single mothers and 10 percent of married mothers. Similarly, about 16 percent of unwed mothers (cohabiting and single) suffer from depression, compared with 13 percent of their married counterparts. Unwed mothers are most distinct from their married counterparts in the FFCWS in terms of heavy drinking and use of illegal drugs. About 8 percent of unwed mothers (cohabiting and single) report heavy drinking, compared with 2 percent of married mothers, and between 2 and 3 percent of unwed mothers (cohabiting and single) report using illegal drugs, compared with 0.3 percent of married mothers.

Research by Aurora Jackson, Marta Tienda, and Chien-Chung Huang, based on a subset of families in the FFCWS, revealed more specific information about the employability and earnings capacity of mothers given their capabilities in a variety of areas that are necessary for getting and keeping higher-wage jobs.8 A summary index of conditions likely to limit earnings capacity included poor health, substance abuse, experiencing domestic violence, youth, lacking a high school diploma, having no work experience, and having three or more children. Notably this study found that the presence of these conditions differed by mothers' relationship status. Like Wendy Sigle-Rushton and Sara McLanahan,9 they found that single mothers in fragile families are more likely to encounter multiple such conditions than are cohabiting mothers: 40.8 percent of cohabiting unwed mothers reported none of these conditions compared with 35.2 percent of noncohabiting unwed mothers. In fact, Jackson and her colleagues concluded that "single mothers who are neither romantically involved with their newborn child's father nor cohabiting with them have especially precarious economic circumstances and constitute the most fragile of all families."

In summary, it is clear that many mothers in fragile families will experience one or more significant barriers to higher-wage employment. These barriers may also make it hard to sustain a full-time year-round job. But even when they can secure sustained, full-time work, mothers in fragile families have low earnings capacity. Indeed, Jackson and colleagues' analysis suggests that most unwed mothers in the FFCWS would be poor even if they worked 1,500 hours a year, and near-poor if they worked full-time, year-round (2,000 hours). Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan report more specifically that only 5 percent of unmarried mothers in the FFCWS could support themselves and their children at more than twice the federal poverty level, given their average earnings.

Asset Levels
One way for households to weather economically difficult times is to tap assets. A home is the primary asset in American families, but mothers with low earnings are unlikely either to be able to accumulate assets or to purchase a home. In the FFCWS, about 50 percent of married-couple households live in a home that is owned, compared with only about 11 percent of cohabiting couples and less than 6 percent of single-mother families.10 As Rebecca Blank and Michael Barr report, low-income households' access to financial institutions is also limited.11

All of these factors pose a problem for mothers and children in fragile families, particularly because without savings or credit, it is difficult to maintain income in challenging economic times. With unwed mothers depending heavily on their own earnings, their incomes will cycle more closely with the economy. As the economy dips, their hours of work may fall, job losses may increase, and earnings may drop, creating greater income shocks. Having no financial cushion also makes unwed mothers more vulnerable to ordinary problems such as needing to repair a malfunctioning car. If a mother cannot repair the car, she may lose her ability to get to work and consequently lose her job. A job loss, with its attendant earnings losses, could set in motion a cascade of other problems that will make it all the more difficult for her to escape poverty. According to Blank and Barr, policies aimed at increasing the saving rate of low-income households could be particularly beneficial, for access to liquid savings may be more important in situations like these than access to illiquid assets.12

Living Arrangements
By definition, mothers in fragile families are not married at the time of their child's birth. Though a large share of these mothers are cohabiting with the child's biological father when the child is born, many such unions eventually dissolve. This single status contributes to high rates of poverty because if a union dissolves (or is never formed in the first place), mothers lose the economies of scale that two-parent households can enjoy (although, as noted, most two-parent unwed households nevertheless experience serious economic hardship). Moreover, mothers who end their cohabiting relationships often lose some or all of the fathers' earnings as a source of income.

But even if all mothers in fragile families could count on receiving a certain share of fathers' earnings, it is not clear that these contributions would lift them out of poverty. Both mothers and fathers who have children outside of marriage are relatively economically disadvantaged. Indeed, fully 25 percent of unmarried fathers in the FFCWS were not working at a steady job around the time of the child's birth. These unmarried fathers are also highly likely to have been incarcerated at some point in their lives (see table 1), a characteristic that is often linked with poor employment prospects. Because fathers in fragile families are more likely to have low and unreliable incomes, they find it hard to support their families, leaving mothers to shoulder much of the breadwinning burden.13 The article by Robert Lerman in this volume elaborates on the conditions and capabilities of unwed fathers in fragile families.

Living Arrangements at Birth One of the key (and largely unexpected) findings from the FFCWS was that many unmarried parents were in committed or quasi-committed relationships at the time their child was born. Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan were the first to examine the living arrangements of unmarried mothers in the FFCWS as well as the correlates of these arrangements.14 They found unwed mothers living in one of four arrangements: cohabiting in a traditional "nuclear structure"—in which only a mother, father, and children live together; cohabiting in a "partner-plus" structure—in which the parents live with at least one of the baby's grandparents or some other adult; noncohabiting and living alone; and noncohabiting but living with other adults. Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan found that just under half of the unmarried mothers in the FFCWS were cohabiting with their babies' fathers at the time of birth, and that about one-third of all unmarried mothers were living in "nuclear family arrangements." Although the nuclear arrangement was the most common for cohabiting couples, a substantial minority lived in more complex arrangements. Nearly 30 percent of the cohabiting couples (15 percent of the full sample) were living with some other adults in the "partner-plus" category. Only 17 percent of the mothers were living alone at the time of birth, and just over one-third were living outside a cohabiting union but with other adults. In short, a relatively small share of unwed mothers in the FFCWS sample fit the stereotypical description of a single mother raising her children alone.

Most surprising was the proportion of mothers in romantic relationships with the father despite being unwed and often living apart. Indeed, more than 80 percent of unmarried parents were romantically involved (including those who were and were not cohabiting at the time of the child's birth), and an additional 8 percent characterized themselves as "just friends." Less than 10 percent of mothers said they had "little or no contact" with their child's father. These very high rates of involvement with the child's father might lead one to question why the mothers suffer from such high rates of economic hardship. One reason, as noted, is that these fathers have relatively few resources with which to augment mothers' economic circumstances. Another reason, which is explored in the articles by Robert Lerman and by Sara McLanahan and Audrey Beck in this volume, is that these initial high rates of contact and involvement with the child's father tend to drop off over time.

Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan found mothers' socioeconomic characteristics varied among these living arrangements.15 First, women living in less independent arrangements (that is, "partner-plus" or "other-adult") were the most likely to be experiencing a first birth and were on average younger (as were the fathers of their children). Given their more limited resources, it is not surprising that younger mothers are less likely to be living independently than older mothers. Conversely, women who lived alone and women who lived in nuclear households were older, which may reflect people's tendency to move to more independent living arrangements as they age.16 Women who were living with their babies' fathers and some other adult (that is, "partner-plus" arrangements) were the youngest and had the least education, most likely reflecting selection into different living arrangements based on economic need.

Based on these patterns, Sigle-Rushton and McLanahan concluded that older and more educated women are more likely to cohabit as a nuclear family at the time of birth and are the least likely to live with other adults. Similarly, women whose partners are older and more educated are also more likely to be cohabiting as a nuclear family at the time of birth. Though it would be tempting to conclude, based on this evidence, that cohabitation in a nuclear arrangement confers economic benefits on mothers in fragile families, it is most likely the case that unwed mothers and fathers with a higher earnings capacity choose this type of living arrangement (as opposed to living with other adults or living alone) because of their own and their partners' human capital and earnings capacities. Thus, policy makers aiming to target assistance to fragile families with the highest rates of economic hardship might wish to focus on those who are either "doubling up" with older adults or living on their own with their children.

Living Arrangements over Time Another key finding from the FFCWS is that despite professed "high hopes" for marriage, most unmarried parents were unable to maintain a stable union over time.17 Only 15 percent of the initially unmarried couples were married at the time of the five-year interview, and only 36 percent were still romantically involved—a large decline from the 80 percent who were romantically involved at the child's birth. Among couples who were already cohabiting at birth, 26 percent eventually married and another 26 percent maintained their unwed cohabiting arrangement. Almost half of couples who were cohabiting at birth, then, had ended their romantic relationship by the five-year survey. Other analysis of the FFCWS sample has revealed that these families also experience high degrees of instability in living arrangements over time.18 The article by McLanahan and Beck in this volume elaborates on these phenomena.

These relatively low rates of movement into marriage, high rates of relationship dissolution, and high rates of change in living arrangements likely play a role in the economic trajectories of mothers in fragile families, although the specific linkages and the causal direction of these linkages are not yet fully understood and likely depend on the type of relationship that forms and dissolves.19

A defining feature of the families of the unwed mothers who make up an ever-increasing share of the U.S. population is poverty and material hardship. Although large numbers of mothers in fragile families work, employment does not enable them to escape poverty. Most have very low earnings because they are poorly educated and have health and emotional problems, all of which can make it difficult to find or keep a well-remunerated full-time job. Mothers in fragile families also have very few assets to help cushion the financial blow of a job loss or an unexpected health problem. Consequently, such hardships are more likely to drive their families into a downward spiral of even more difficult economic circumstances.

The living arrangements of mothers in fragile families may account for some of their low household incomes but are clearly not the predominant factor given the similarity in household incomes between cohabiting and single mothers. High rates of relationship dissolution and frequent changes in living arrangements may also play a role in the economic conditions of mothers in fragile families, but their relative importance has not yet been established. The major contributor to the economic challenges facing mothers in fragile families is their low earnings capacity. In the next section, we describe how these mothers manage to make ends meet amid these economic challenges.