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Embargoed for release: April 23, 2001 11 p.m. EDT


James Devitt, Columbia University; (212) 854-6173,

Marilyn Marks, Princeton University; (609) 258-5748,

New research suggests changes in welfare and child support policies can promote stable families

Analysis precedes summer’s Congressional review of 1996 welfare law

Princeton, N.J. -- New findings by researchers at Columbia and Princeton universities provide support for those who believe government can promote marriage and stable family life among the nation’s most disadvantaged households. The findings are being published just as Congress begins the reauthorization process for landmark welfare legislation of 1996.

The findings, part of a five-year, $17 million research effort, "The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study," suggest that unwed parents have high hopes and expectations of having strong families, including marriage, but are severely hampered by poor education and low earnings. Changes in welfare and child support policies would go far to help, the researchers conclude.

Current welfare and child support policies create obstacles for unwed parents to stay together after the birth of their child despite these parents’ desires to form families, the researchers found. As a remedy, they argue legislators should take a variety of steps to encourage family formation for unwed parents, including better child support enforcement, eliminating marriage penalties in the Earned Income Tax Credit and creating job training programs.

The research team, led by Irwin Garfinkel of Columbia University and Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, drew its conclusions from seven studies that appear in "Fragile Families and Welfare Reform," a special April issue of Children and Youth Services Review, a social work journal. Those studies are based on interviews with 2,325 mothers and 1,759 fathers at the time of birth in seven U.S. cities (Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Md., Detroit, Mich., Newark, N.J., Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia, Pa., and Richmond, Va.).

"Current welfare and child support policies too often undermine rather than strengthen fragile family ties," said Garfinkel. "The 1996 law made improvements in this area, but not enough. Because welfare includes an income test, it encourages couples to live apart&endash;or to pretend to do so&endash;pushing fathers out of the picture."

"One way to reduce disincentives to marriage and co-habitation in welfare policy is to ensure that fathers who live apart from their children pay child support," said McLanahan. "However, child support enforcement alone is insufficient. Bolstering education and job-training programs as well as conflict resolution and drug and alcohol treatment programs soon after the birth of the baby is crucial. Offering these services years later, after a father’s relationship with the mother has ended, is too late to help the nation’s fragile families."

The researchers define fragile families as unmarried parents and their children, whether they are raising their children together or not. Such families are considered fragile because their risk of poverty and family instability is higher than that of married-couple families. Three quarters of the mothers and fathers have no more than a high school education.

However, the studies reveal high hopes in unwed parents’ relationships at the time of their child’s birth:

- More than 80 percent of unwed parents report having a romantic relationship at the time of their child’s birth.
- More than 90 percent of mothers and fathers want the father to be involved in raising the child.
- Seventy percent of unwed parents and 90 percent of cohabiting unwed parents say their chances of getting married are 50 percent or better.

Researchers also found benefits to cohabitation among unwed parents:

- Fathers who are cohabiting are three times more likely to visit the hospital at the time of their child’s birth than are fathers who are romantically involved with the mother but not cohabiting.
- A father’s education, family values and church attendance are not related to father involvement at the time of a child’s birth.
- Among unwed mothers, cohabitation increases the likelihood of early prenatal care and reduces the likelihood of drug and alcohol use.
- Among unmarried mothers who are still romantically involved with the father, cohabitation is associated with higher birth weights.

However, Garfinkel and McLanahan noted that because welfare payments are income tested, with parents who live together receiving lower benefits than those who do not, the current system encourages couples in which the father works and the mother does not to live apart. In some instances, couples eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) earn more if they live apart than if they are married.

The research showed that, because of their low earnings, unwed parents are likely to be eligible for the EITC:

- If unwed mothers on welfare were to work full-time year-round, more than half would earn less than $13,564.
- The average income of unwed mothers is $22,426 while that of married mothers is $51,993.
- Unwed fathers earn about $17,000 a year, approximately half of what married fathers earn.