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Recent federal attempts to improve children's wellbeing by promoting marriage and assisting single parents may be missing a significant but unexpected target. A recent study by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) finds that surprisingly high numbers of parents are living together with their children, but are not married.
"These are not single-parent families, but two-parent households minus the marriage certificate," says the study's author, sociologist Maureen Waller. "That fact makes it more difficult for them to receive aid from programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and in-kind assistance such as food stamps and health insurance." Unmarried, cohabiting parents are also less likely to participate in fatherhood programs - a focal point of the current White House administration.
The analysis surveyed 250 Oakland, California families with unmarried parents and tracked the parents' relationships for one year from the time of their child's birth. The results showed that about half of the parents were living together when their child was born. After one year, 75 percent of those couples were still living together and an additional 10 percent had married.
However, the study also found that while only 15 percent of those surveyed reported no romantic involvement with the other parent at the time of birth, the number of uninvolved parents grew to 40 percent after one year.
"We see that unmarried couples who were living together at the time of their child's birth had the most stable relationships. While only a small percentage got married, most were still living under the same roof, with their children, after a year," says Waller. However, the jump in the number of parents who were not involved with each other after one year also demonstrates how fragile these relationships can be, she points out.
Eliminating the distinction between single and two-parent families when providing aid may help more of these unmarried couples stay together because it could relieve financial pressures that make them less secure about their relationship and more hesitant to marry, according to the study. Eligibility criteria for cash assistance (TANF) and in-kind assistance such as food stamps, housing, and health care are primarily geared to single parents. Government policies and programs that focus on maintaining relationships, stabilizing families, and facilitating a transition to marriage for unmarried couples may have the highest chance of success among those who are living together and should be an area of special policy attention, says Waller.
In some ways, keeping unmarried parents together with their children may be consistent with the current administration's focus on supporting two-parent families through welfare reform legislation and "responsible fatherhood" proposals. For example, the President's budget proposes $64 million in 2002 for programs that strengthen the role of fathers in the lives of families. Although the administration's concentration is largely on promoting marriage, parents who live together are more likely to eventually get married, says Waller.
This study, Unmarried Parents, Fragile Families: New Evidence from Oakland, is part of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing project, a national longitudinal study of unmarried parents and their children.