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Poor Children See Their Dads More Often Than Commonly Assumed

Paternal Involvement Not Predicated on Marriage

Document date: May 09, 2003
Released online: May 09, 2003

Contact: Harold Leibovitz, 202-261-5815
Stu Kantor, (202) 261-5283

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 9, 2003—Contrary to common assumptions, about half of the nation's poor children—most of whom reside in female-headed households—see their fathers at least once a week, according to new research from the Urban Institute's Assessing the New Federalism project.

However, Age, Race, and Children's Living Arrangements: Implications for TANF Reauthorization also reveals significant differences in the living arrangements of poor black children and their fathers' parental involvement compared with those of white and Hispanic children.

The research draws on data from the 1999 round of the Urban Institute's 40,000-household National Survey of America's Families to portray the living arrangements of the nation's low-income children. This research focuses on children in households with income below the federal poverty level ($13,400 for a family of three in 1999).

The report identifies six living arrangements based on the marital status of the child's biological parents, whether the parents live together, and whether the nonresident parent—usually the father—visits the child regularly. In married families, both biological parents are married and live with the child. In divorced-visiting families, the parents divorced after the child was born and the nonresident parent visits the child regularly. In fragile-cohabiting families, the child's biological parents both live with the child but the parents are not married. In fragile-visiting families, the child's biological parents have never been married to each other, the child lives with the mother, and the father visits at least once a week. Single-mother families are those families in which the child lives with the mother and the father visits infrequently or never. The other category includes families in which the child lives either with the biological father and no other adult, or with an adult who is not a biological parent and the father visits infrequently or never.

Living arrangements differ greatly for poor children by racial and ethnic group. Almost 40 percent of poor white and Hispanic children live in married families, compared with 7 percent of poor black children. Black children are much more likely than white or Hispanic children to live in fragile-visiting families (21 percent compared with 4 and 9 percent, respectively). Poor black children also are much more likely than white or Hispanic children (49 percent compared with 30 and 33 percent, respectively) to live in single-mother families (with little or no father involvement).

As income increases, the share of black children living in married families rises and the share not living with their fathers falls. Either way, though, racial and ethnic differences in living arrangements remain. Similarly, more Hispanic children live in fragile-visiting and single-mother families than do their white counterparts.

Among poor infants, these racial and ethnic differences are amplified. While there are no statistically significant differences across racial and ethnic groups in the proportion of poor children younger than age 2 who live in single-mother families, differences in the share of poor infants with involved fathers are significant. Roughly 40 percent of poor white and Hispanic infants live in married families, compared with only 3 percent of poor black infants. In contrast, 45 percent of poor black infants live in fragile-visiting families, compared with 9 percent of white infants and 13 percent of Hispanic infants living in poor families.

"In fragile-visiting families, poor black infants have frequent contact with both of their parents—clearly a good thing," explained Ronald B. Mincy, Maurice V. Russell Professor of Social Policy and Social Welfare Practice at Columbia University and coauthor of the study with former Urban Institute researcher Helen Oliver. "The challenge for policymakers is to keep these dads involved over time. Responsible fatherhood programs that lead unwed fathers to establish paternity for their children and provide material support may benefit more children than efforts now being made to promote marriage."


Age, Race, and Children's Living Arrangements: Implications for TANF Reauthorization (Policy Brief B-53), by Ronald B. Mincy and Helen Oliver, is available online or from the Urban Institute Publications Sales Office at 202-261-5687 or toll-free at 1-877-UIPRESS.

The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and education organization that examines the social, economic, and governance problems facing the nation. Assessing the New Federalism is a multiyear Urban Institute project designed to analyze the devolution of responsibility for social programs from the federal government to the states.



Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net | Race/Ethnicity/Gender


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