Indiana University SPEA Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy University of Pennsylvania AIR American University

Panel Paper: Unmarried Fathers' Involvement and Children's Behavioral Outcomes

Saturday, November 14, 2015 : 8:30 AM
Merrick I (Hyatt Regency Miami)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Marcy Carlson, University of Wisconsin - Madison, Julia S. Alamillo, Mathematica Policy Research, Sara McLanahan, Princeton University and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Columbia University
The disconnect between marriage and childbearing in the U.S. has never been greater, at least among disadvantaged groups. Non-marital childbearing has increased dramatically since the mid-1960s, rising to fully 41% of all births in 2012, with much higher fractions among racial/ethnic minorities (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2013). This trend signals not only changes in the context of births, but also in the fundamental nature and patterns of childrearing, particularly with respect to paternal roles and involvement with children. Despite these trends, research on unmarried fathers’ involvement with children using national data is limited. Most studies of non-resident fathers based on national samples combine never-married fathers with much larger groups of divorced/separated fathers. Studies that focus on unmarried fathers typically use small and/or unrepresentative samples of poor, minority men (Nelson, 2004).

In this paper, we use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal survey of nearly 5,000 births that occurred between 1998 and 2000. The survey over-samples unmarried parents, and, when weighted, is representative of births in cities with populations over 200,000. Our primary aims are 1) to describe levels of fathers’ involvement with children during the first nine years after a non-marital birth, and 2) to estimate the associations between fathers’ involvement and children’s externalizing and internalizing behavioral problems at ages three, five and nine. Throughout our analyses, we consider resident and non-resident fathers separately. We utilize multiple measures of fathers’ involvement, including time spent with children, engagement in developmentally-appropriate father-child activities, and shared responsibility and cooperation with mothers in raising their child.

Preliminary results suggest that, not surprisingly, resident fathers are much more involved with their children after a non-marital birth than are non-resident fathers. Results from random- and fixed-effects models provide some evidence that father involvement matters for children’s internalizing and externalizing behavior. The two measures that reflect fathers’ joint parenting with their children’s mother—coparenting and shared responsibility—show the strongest relationship to behavioral problems for both resident and non-resident fathers. By contrast, engagement in father-child activities is not associated with behavioral problems for resident or non-resident fathers. As we develop this paper further, we will conduct additional analyses, including comparing fathers who are stably resident or non-resident with those who change status over time, examining fathers’ reports of their own involvement (versus mothers’ reports), addressing issues of missing data, and comparing our results for unmarried fathers to a comparison group of fathers who were married at their child’s birth.

We believe this paper will provide important new information about a growing, yet still poorly understood, demographic group—unmarried fathers—and shed light on the extent to which their ongoing involvement with children contributes to children’s development. This work contributes to our understanding of how contemporary families carry out their fundamental responsibility to rear and socialize children amidst unprecedented levels of instability and complexity, and highlights differential paternal investment as a potentially important aspect of growing inequality.