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Publication #FAR3003

Why Fragile Families Don't Marry1

Donna Davis2

Figure 1. 
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“He can’t support us. Why should I marry him?”

This mom is not alone in her resistance to matrimony. In fact, increasing evidence has many of the opponents of the Healthy Marriage Initiative on the offensive. While the reauthorization of the welfare reform bill will allocate substantial funds to states for the development of programs for improving relations between unmarried parents, those who challenge the bill argue that marriage is not the answer.

Critics of the marriage promotion programs point to barriers to marriage among what are called “fragile families,” unmarried parents who are raising a child or children together, who share a precarious economic status. The most commonly discussed barriers to marriage among this population are lack of stable employment, mental health problems, and domestic violence. Researchers from Princeton’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Columbia University point out that nearly one-fifth of the unmarried parents among this group are not romantically involved and are thus not likely to get involved in a marriage program. Thirteen percent of these parents have a history of violence, indicating that marriage may not be a safe choice for the women and children in the family. Collectively, one-third of these unmarried couples are not good candidates for marriage promotion programs.

On the other side of the debate, the same research suggests that an equal one-third of couples may benefit from marriage programs. This would occur only if they incorporate programs that address parents’ employment and mental health heeds. Now it’s in the hands of the policy makers to develop and fund appropriate programming for America’s fragile families.

Listening, learning, and living together: it's the science of life. "Family Album" is a co-production of University of Florida IFAS Extension, the Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, and of WUFT-FM. If you'd like to learn more, please visit our website at

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This document is FAR3003, one of a series of the Family Youth and Community Sciences Department, Florida Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida. Broadcast as program 10 in October 2004. Reviewed and published on EDIS February 2013. In the interest of time and/or clarity, the broadcast version of this script may have been modified. Visit the EDIS website at


Donna Davis, senior producer, Family Album Radio, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32611.

The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.