Fragile families, fragile children

Sara McLanahan

Sara McLanahan is the principal investigator on the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which found that children of unmarried parents encounter a great deal of instability. (Photo by Larry Levanti)

Relationships are complicated in the best of times, but even more so for unmarried parents and their children. Children born to unmarried parents encounter considerable instability in their family life when their biological parents end relationships and form relationships with new partners, according to data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an initiative spearheaded by family demography expert in the Woodrow Wilson School Sara McLanahan.

The study found that just over a third of unmarried parents who are romantically involved at birth are still together by the time their child is 5 years old, compared to 80 percent of married parents. More than 60 percent of unmarried mothers have by then also changed residential partners — that is, had one or more new partners move in or out of the household.

Children encounter an even wider cast of characters if researchers take account of mothers’ more casual dating partnerships, with more than 75 percent of unmarried mothers experiencing a change in either a co-residential or short-term dating relationship. Half-siblings are also part of the picture: nearly 50 percent of children born to unmarried mothers live with a half-sibling by the time they reach age 5.

“The bottom line is that very few children born to unmarried parents are living in stable single-mother families,” said McLanahan, the William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. The Fragile Families study is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and several foundations.

That unmarried parents are more likely to have low education and income levels means that their children often fare worse as well, reporting more physical and mental health problems. Children of unmarried parents also tend to score lower on reading and math tests. McLanahan explained that while economic adversity accounts for much of this disadvantage, a high level of instability and family complexity may contribute to these negative outcomes.

–By Tara Thean

Immigration policy is ripe for reform

Marta Tienda

Marta Tienda, an immigration policy expert at Princeton’s
Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has found that the
number of older immigrants is on the rise. (Photo by Larry Levanti)

Family unification provisions enacted in the 1960s have contributed to population aging in the United States, according to an analysis by Marta Tienda, an immigration and policy expert at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

In research presented at two Population Association of America annual meetings in 2012 and 2013, Tienda found that the 1965 Amendments to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which exempted parents of naturalized and native-born U.S. citizens from annual immigration caps, have led to an increase in late-age immigration over the last three decades.

Parents represented nearly one quarter of the 475,000 exempt-sponsored relatives in 2010, compared to only 11 percent of the 81,000 admitted in 1971, according to Tienda, the Maurice P. During Professor in Demographic Studies. The rise in late-age immigration stems both from the 1965 parental exemption provisions and from provisions that allow naturalized citizens and legal permanent residents to sponsor extended-family relatives.

The findings suggest that policymakers should consider age and its economic and social consequences in crafting immigration policy — especially in light of rising health care costs and the challenges seniors face in qualifying for private health insurance, Tienda said. Her work is funded by the National Institutes of Health through Princeton’s Demography of Aging Center.

“People think of the sentimental part,” Tienda said, referring to family reunification. “This fact of late-age immigration has not gotten a lot of attention.”

–By Tara Thean