Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study
The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) is a longitudinal birth cohort study of American children in urban areas, run by Princeton University and Columbia University with the University of Michigan. It uses a stratified random sample technique and an oversample of non-marital births. Baseline data collection ran from 1998–2000, with interviews with both biological parents shortly after the child’s birth. Follow-up interviews were conducted when the child was one, three, five, and nine years old. Fifteen year interviews began in February 2014.
In addition to parent interviews, the years three, five, and nine included in-home assessments, child care or teacher assessments, and interviews with the child. Core aims of the study are to learn about capabilities and relationships of unmarried parents, and how families and children fare on various health and social measures over time.
Children in the FFCWS were born in hospitals in 20 large cities across the United States. These cities were selected for diversity in child support enforcement, labor market conditions, and welfare generosity. Within each city, hospitals were sampled and births were sampled in each hospital. The study design called for an over-sample of births to unmarried couples.
Thus, although non-marital births accounted for only a third of U.S. births at the time the study began, they make up around three-quarters of the Fragile Families sample. The FFCWS public data files include weights for each wave of data collection that can be used to make the sample representative of urban births nationwide.
Research Questions and Topics
The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study was designed primarily to address four questions of great interest to researchers and policy makers: (1) What are the conditions and capabilities of unmarried parents, especially fathers?; (2) What is the nature of the relationships between unmarried parents?; (3) How do children born into these families fare?; and (4) How do policies and environmental conditions affect families and children?
Some of the major topic areas covered are as follows:
- Household Characteristics: household roster and demographics, child’s living arrangements, employment and income, housing and neighborhoods
- Incarceration: current status and history of parents and new partners
- Family Relationships: bio-parents relationship, new partnerships, social support, church attendance, civic participation
- Parental Health and Cognitive Ability: physical health, mental health, cognitive ability
- Parenting: nurturance and discipline, cognitive stimulation, relationship with child, Child Protective Services involvement
- Child Health and Development: child’s use of medical care, health of child, child’s health at birth, child’s nutrition, daily routines, cognitive development, child behavior, child relationships
- Child Care/Kindergarten: child care use, child care/kindergarten characteristics at 3 and 5
- Elementary School (age 9, teacher and caregiver reports): school, classroom, and teacher characteristics; child’s behavior; special education services; comparative academic performance; parental involvement
- Genetic Analysis: mother and child, genetic predisposition and gene-environment interaction
- Program participation: TANF, food stamps, Medicaid, EITC, child support, housing
Baseline data collection consisted of an in-person interview with the biological mother and biological fathers, usually at the hospital shortly after the child’s birth. Medical records for the mother and infant were also collected when possible.
At the one-year survey wave, the parents were each interviewed by telephone.
When the child was three, the parents were interviewed again by telephone. There was also a visit to where the child lives and an in-person interview with the child’s primary caregiver, usually the mother. The child and mother completed cognitive assessments and their heights and weights were collected. The interviewer also gathered observational data on the home environment, appearance and behaviors of the family, and the neighborhood. In 10 of the 20 cities, the child care setting was also observed and the non-parental caretaker completed a survey.
The five-year interview contained the same components as the three-year, except with the observation and survey conducted in Kindergarten classes instead of child care settings for the 10 city subsample.
Around the child’s ninth birthday, both parents were interviewed by phone. Again, a home visit included a primary caregiver interview and physical and cognitive assessments of the child. The primary caregiver also filled out a paper survey. This wave included the first in-person interview with the child and the collection of saliva samples by the mother and child for DNA analysis. All families with home visits were then asked for contact information for the child’s teacher, who was mailed a survey.
Data collection for the Year 15 follow-up wave began in February 2014 and ended April 2017. Year 15 included interviews with the primary caregiver and the teen. Home visits were conducted for a subset of the sample. Collaborative projects included a sleep and physical activity study from the in-home sample, an adolescent brain development study in three cities, and a mobile diary study of adolescent relationships. A two-year follow-up after the Year 15 data collection began in May 2017 and is projected to be complete by 2020.
The Fragile Families Study differs from many others in its diligence in tracking non-custodial parents, generally fathers living outside the household.
Funding and Management
FFCWS is a joint project of Princeton University and Columbia Universities. It is actively managed through the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton, in the Office of Population Research (OPR), in collaboration with the Center for Health and Wellbeing at Princeton and the Columbia Population Research Center and the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) at Columbia University. The principal investigators of the project are Sara McLanahan and Christina Paxson at Princeton and Irwin Garfinkel, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, and Ron Mincy at Columbia.
The FFCWS is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies.
Data collection for the nine-year and fifteen-year waves of FFCWS have been administered by Westat. The previous four waves of data collection were conducted by Mathematica Policy Research and National Opinion Research Center (NORC).
Public data for the FFCWS is available for free. It is hosted in the OPR data archive, and directions for access through a quick registration process can be obtained from the Fragile Families website.
More sensitive information, such as certain geographic identifiers and contextual census data, may also be obtained on a contract basis.
Hundreds of peer-reviewed articles, books and book chapters, and dissertations or theses have been written using the data.
- Family structure in the United States
- National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health
- The Negro Family: The Case For National Action, 1965
- Early Childhood Longitudinal Program
- Millennium Cohort Study