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  • Introducing the Issue
  • Sara McLanahan (bio), Irwin Garfinkel (bio), Ronald B. Mincy (bio), and Elisabeth Donahuefragile (bio)

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 families, however, it is important first to understand the decades-long debate over this issue.

The Debate

Researchers have long disagreed about whether the increase in nonmarital childbearing in the United States should be a cause for concern. At one extreme, analysts argue that nonmarital births are a sign of progress, reflecting an expansion of individual freedom and the growing economic independence of women. For these analysts, unmarried parents are much like married parents, lacking only "the piece of paper." To support their claim, they point to similar childbirth trends throughout Western industrialized countries, particularly Scandinavia, where nonmarital childbearing is more common than it is in the United States and where most unmarried parents are in relatively stable unions. At the other end of the spectrum are scholars who argue that nonmarital births are the product of casual relationships with minimal commitment on the part of fathers who either will not or cannot support their children financially and emotionally. Occupying the middle ground are those who argue that although [End Page 3] unmarried parents may be committed to each other and to their children, American fragile families, lacking the generous government support provided by other Westernized countries, experience high poverty rates and severe instability. This last perspective suggests that the increase in nonmarital childbearing in the United States may be contributing to the persistence of racial and class disparities in future generations.

Whatever their place on the spectrum, most analysts agree that for a sizable share of the U.S. population, the conventional sequence of events in the transition to adulthood—school, employment, marriage, and finally parenthood—has been turned upside down. Today's young adults often become parents before they have finished their education, gotten a stable job, and married. As a result, many American children are born into families headed by young, unmarried, and underemployed parents who often go on to have children with other partners.

The nation's debate over the causes and consequences of nonmarital childbearing began almost half a century ago. In his now famous 1965 report, The Negro Family,4 Daniel Patrick Moynihan (then assistant secretary of labor under President Lyndon Johnson) argued that a "tangle of pathology," consisting of nonmarital childbearing, high male unemployment, and welfare dependency, was making it more difficult for African Americans to take advantage of the new opportunities created by the civil rights movement. Initially praised by black leaders for focusing national attention on a serious problem, the report soon became the target of harsh and widespread criticism from liberals (and eventually black leaders themselves). In the aftermath of the debate, social scientists generally avoided discussing the negative aspects of nonmarital childbearing until the 1980s, when the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson reopened the debate.5 During that same decade, the behaviors first noted by Moynihan in black families were being widely adopted by whites and Hispanics, making nonmarital childbearing an issue for disadvantaged families of all races today.6

The Research

Despite the importance of the topic and the intensity of...


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