About the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) is based on a stratified, multistage sample of 4898 children born in large U.S. cities (population over 200,000) between 1998 and 2000, where births to unmarried mothers were oversampled by a ratio of 3 to 1. This sampling strategy resulted in the inclusion of a large number of Black, Hispanic, and low-income families. Mothers were interviewed shortly after birth and fathers were interviewed at the hospital or by phone. Follow-up interviews were conducted when children were approximately ages 1, 3, 5, 9, 15, and 22 (began late 2020). When weighted, the data are representative of births in large US cities.

Beginning with the baseline interviews in 1998-2000, the core study was originally designed to primarily 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?

The Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study consists of a core survey with mothers, fathers, primary caregivers, and the focal child. Additionally, collaborative projects have enriched the core study by adding new questions to the surveys or by collecting new data on a subset of parents and children. See below for more details about the core and collaborative projects.

image of study timeline

Note: Click image to enlarge


FFCWS is a joint effort by Princeton University’s Center for Research on Child Wellbeing(CRCW) and the Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC).

The current Principal Investigators are Kathryn Edin at Princeton University and Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University. The Study founders were Sara McLanahan at Princeton University,  Irwin Garfinkel at Columbia University, and Ron Mincy at Columbia University. 

About the Core Study

Core Study Waves

The Core Study consists of interviews with mothers, fathers, focal children, and/or primary caregivers at birth and again when children are ages one, three, five, nine, and fifteen. These interviews collect information on a wide range of topics including: attitudes, relationships, parenting behavior, demographic characteristics, health (mental and physical), economic and employment status, neighborhood characteristics, and program participation. Six waves of data are publicly available through the Office of Population Research data archive.

Research findings based on data from the Study are published in research briefs, reports, working papers, journal articles, and book chapters (see the publications page).

In 2020 we began fieldwork for the seventh wave of the Study, when our focal children were approximately 22 years old. This wave will include a survey with the “focal child” as a young adult as well as with the person who was the Primary Caregiver (PCG) at Year 15. For data on the young adults, we will include questions on a wide range of topics including socioeconomic status, family formation, physical and mental health, family relationships and social support, local area contexts, and access to and participation in health care, higher education, housing, and other government programs. For PCGs we will ask questions about their own health and wellbeing, employment, housing, and family relationships.


Collaborative Projects

1. TLC3 Qualitative Study

Principal Investigators: Kathryn EdinPaula England

Funder: MacArthur Foundation

Title: Couple Dynamics & Fathers' Investments in Children: A Qualitative Addition

The Time, Love and Cash in Couples with Children (TLC3) project conducted multiple in-depth interviews with a subset of parents from the FFCWS sample over the first four years of the focal child's life. These data enabled us to analyze why some couples with very young children break up while others remain together, why some fathers remain actively involved in their parent role while others do not, and how couple and parenthood dynamics early in a child's life affect that child's development.

2. Medical Records

Principal Investigator: Nancy Reichman & Julien Teitler

Funder: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

Title: Effects of Prenatal Care on Pediatric Health Care

Most research on the effectiveness of prenatal care has focused on birth outcomes--usually birthweight or infant mortality--and has found small or no effects. However, the focus on birth outcomes represents a relatively narrow view of the potential of prenatal care. To more fully assess the benefits of prenatal care, it is necessary to consider longer-term impacts. Very little is known about the effects of prenatal care on pediatric health care utilization, health-related parenting behaviors, or child health outcomes. The few existing studies do not address the potential endogeneity of prenatal care use. These knowledge gaps were addressed in this research project.

3. Fatherhood & Incarceration

Principal Investigator:  Bruce Western

Funder: Charles Stewart Mott Foundation

Title: Fatherhood and Incarceration in FFCWS

Previous research often found that incarceration reduces male earnings. But the estimated magnitudes of the effect varied widely and the causal mechanisms were not well understood because of the inadequacy of existing data. This project added a criminal justice history module to the first three follow-up interviews in the study and conducted analyses with these data to obtain improved estimates of the magnitude of the labor market penalty for incarceration and a better understanding of the causal mechanisms.


4. In-home Study

Principal Investigators: Christina Paxson, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Jane Waldfogel, & Neil Guterman 

Funders: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development & National Institute of Mental Health

Title: Economic Status, Public Policy, and Child Neglect

The aim of this project was to study the relationships between economic factors and child neglect. The research investigated how parental resources, in the form of parental presence or absence, time, and money, affect both physical and emotional neglect of children under the age of five. The work also examined how parental resources interact with other factors that affect child neglect, including parental stress and depression, and community characteristics such as community poverty, neighborhood cohesion, social control and violence. A major focus of the research was the effects on neglect of public policies, such as welfare programs and child support enforcement, which influence parental resources. A special neglect module was added to the in-home assessments of FFCWS when the children under study were 30 and 60 months old. The assessments provided first-hand information on the child's physical environment and the quality of parenting and parent-child interactions. The information from the neglect module, when combined with the extensive socioeconomic data from FFCWS served as a unique and valuable resource for the study of child neglect.

5. Child Care Centers & Teachers Study

Principal Investigators: Jeanne Brooks-Gunn & Deborah Phillips

Funder: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

Title: Child Care & Parental Employment in FFCWS

This project added a child care module to the FFCWS. Using a sample of 2,176 children from 18 cities across the country, we included child care observations and interviews with providers and parents when the children are 33-months of age. We also assessed child cognitive, social and emotional development, as well as parental practices and behaviors during home visits at 30- and 60-months. This project involved contacting teachers across all 18 cities to obtain information regarding the children's kindergarten experiences. Our specific aims were to: (1) describe parental employment and child care patterns in a diverse sample of low-income families; (2) assess the relative influences of employment, child care, and family context on child well-being; (3) augment these models by examining possible moderating child and family factors; and (4) see whether changes in employment, child care, and family context predict changes in children's cognitive, social, and emotional well-being.

6. Religion & Relationships

Principal Investigators: W. Bradford Wilcox & Byron Johnson 

Funder: The Center for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society (CRRUCS) at the University of Pennsylvania

Title: Religion and Relationships in Urban America 

Religious behavior and religious beliefs are associated with higher levels of relationship quality and stability in the population at large. But we know little about how religion influences the relationships of romantically-involved, cohabiting, and married couples in urban America. This project investigated the effect of religion on union formation, relationship quality, union stability, and domestic violence by adding a religion module to the Year 3 interviews. This project also focused on the ways in which particular relationship-related beliefs and practices mediate the associations between religion and relationships.

7. DNA/Genomic Studies

Principal Investigators: Daniel NottermanColter Mitchell 

Funders:  Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, and National Institute of Mental Health (R01HD076592, R01MD011716, R01MH103761, R01HD073352)

Title: Multiple projects

Broadly, these genomic studies are examining fixed genetic variants and levels of and changes in telomere length (TL) and DNA methylation (DM) among child, teen, and adult participants in FFCWS. Researchers are identifying the interaction between the prenatal through early adolescent environment and genetic and epigenetic measures. The projects use saliva collected from a subset of FFCWS children and their primary caregivers at Year 9 and from teens at Year 15 to 1) examine genetic variation using a genome-wide assay on both children and primary caregivers (R01HD076592 and R01HD073352), 2) assay TL at Years 9 and 15 for the children and when the child is Year 9 for the mother (R01HD076592), 3) assemble epigenome-wide data at two points at Years 9 and 15 for the children (R01HD076592, R01MD011716, R01MH103761). The expected results of these studies will be to provide: 1) genomic data and constructed measures (i.e. polygenic scores, epigenetic clocks, etc) to the research community, 2) population-based TL and epigenome-wide DM measures for 3 race/ethnic groups in childhood and adolescence, 3) genetic associations with development from birth through adolescences, 4) linkages between social adversity across development (from in utero to Year 15) with epigenetic measures, and 5) estimates of biosocial interplay between genomic measures contextual measures and their joint influence on health and development.


8. Fragile Families Challenge & Dark Matter Qualitative Study

Principal Investigators: Kathryn Edin, Timothy Nelson, Ian Lundberg, Barbara Engelhardt, & Matthew Salganik 

Funders: The Overdeck Family Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation

Title: The Fragile Families Challenge Machine Learning, Qualitative Interviews, and Causal Inference

What unmeasured factors influence adolescent experiences? This project interviewed adolescents with similar predicted outcomes but different observed outcomes to discover some of the “dark matter” that leads to unexpected outcomes. Focusing on two adolescent outcomes (GPA and the experience of material hardship), we conducted in-depth, semi-structured interviews with approximately 50 sets of teens and primary caregivers in three of the FFCWS sample cities. By learning the unmeasured factors behind unexpected adolescent experiences, we will better understand the chain of events that lead to unexpected academic outcomes and family poverty.

9. Teen Diary Study

Principal Investigators: Rachel Goldberg & Marta Tienda

Funder: The Center for Health and Wellbeing, Princeton University

Title: mDiary 

The mDiary study followed a subsample of teens who completed core surveys in the Year 15 follow-up of FFCWS. Teens used a smart phone application or a web browser to complete bi-weekly surveys, which asked about family, peer group, and romantic relationships. There were also questions about the teen’s mood, school experiences, substance and time use, and expectations for the future.

10. Appending Contextual Data

Principal Investigators: Sara McLanahanKathy Neckerman

Funder: The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Title: Improving Opportunities for Urban Youth: What Can We Learn from City Comparisons? 

The primary goal of the “Improving Opportunities for Urban Youth” project was to use data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) to identify characteristics of communities that are associated with the health and wellbeing of children from disadvantaged family backgrounds. In order to better understand how disadvantaged children are affected by where they grow up, the project merged residential and school contextual characteristics to 15 years of individual-level longitudinal data from the FFCWS. These new contextual data files included four domains: family, school, neighborhood, and city, and are now available for use by public data users through the Restricted Use Contract data process. 

This project also provided funding for interviews with teens and their primary caregivers (PCGs) at Year 15 for the sample of FFCWS participants who have been followed since birth but who were not interviewed at Year 9. This data collection effort was conducted by the survey staff at the Columbia Population Research Center.

11. Education Records

Principal Investigators: Sara McLanahan, Lisa Markman-Pithers, Christopher Neilson, & Louis Donnelly 

Funder: The Overdeck Family Foundation 

Title: Appending Educational Records to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study

The goals of this project were both 1) to enhance the FFCWS data for improved analysis of our participants’ educational achievements and 2) to establish and document procedures for collecting education records data for amendment to large-scale surveys such as FFCWS, for the benefit of other researchers who are interested in similar work.

12. Brain Study (Year 15 & Year 22)

Principal Investigators: Luke Hyde, Colter Mitchell, and Chris Monk

Funder: National Institute of Mental Health

Title: Adolescent Wellbeing and Brain Development (Year 15), Computational Examination of RDoC Threat and Reward Constructs in a  Representative, Predominantly Low-Income, Longitudinal Sample At Increased Risk for Internalizing Disorders (Year 22)

Year 15- Following the completion of the Year 15 core home visit activities, teens in three  FFCWS sample cities  were asked to participate in a ½ day session of additional activities at the University of Michigan, including brain scan, measurement of cortisol reactivity, collection of hair, blood spots, and saliva, as well as clinical interviews and videotaping.  Researchers are studying the relationship between poverty-related stress and affective function at four levels of analysis: brain, physiological, behavioral, and self/parent report measures.  A major aim of this research is better characterize mental health conditions that result from poverty-related stress -- by identifying the mechanisms through which this stress alters brain and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function. 

Adolescents underwent 1) functional MRI to assess activation and connectivity during an emotional faces task, a monetary reward task, and rest, and 2) diffusion MRI to measure structural connectivity. For the emotional faces task, participants viewed angry, fearful, happy, sad, and neutral faces and indicated the gender of the face while pressing a button. For the monetary reward task, participants quickly responded to a visual stimulus to gain or avoid losing money, allowing measurement of anticipation, response, and outcome to monetary incentive. This data can be accessed through the NIMH Data Archive.  

Year 22 - This project will assess approximately 600 young adults from the FFCWS sample, and use data-driven analytics to design, apply and validate multilevel-multimodal models of Threat and Reward constructs in an existing longitudinal cohort at risk for psychopathology. To predict internalizing symptoms, the project will identify biotypes cross-sectionally and examine the longitudinal plasticity of RDoC-informed biotypes. Harsh social-ecological conditions will be deeply assessed and used to forecast the onset/intensification of internalizing symptoms at multiple units.  Young adults participating in this project will be brought to the University of Michigan and receive a series of assessments, including MRI, fMRI, psychiatric diagnostic assessments, and self-reported survey measures of anxiety, depression, behavioral and environmental factors.

13. Sleep Study (Year 15 & Year 22)

Year 15

Principal Investigators: Lauren Hale & Orfeu Buxton 

Funder: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

Title: Biopsychosocial Determinants of Sleep and Wellbeing for Teens in FFCWS 

Approximately 1,000 teens completing phone surveys during the Year 15 follow-up wave of FFCWS wore wrist and hip actigraphs for a one-week period following the home visit.  This actigraphic data allowed researchers to directly monitor sleep timing, duration, and quality in addition to physical activity. During this same week, participants provided a one-week multimedia exposure diary. Together, these measures will allow researchers to study the biopsychosocial (e.g., socioeconomic status, neighborhood factors, genetic) determinants of adolescent sleep patterns and their associations with biological (i.e., obesity) and psychological (i.e., depression) outcomes.  Researchers will also be using this data to study the direct and indirect effects of physical activity and screen time exposure on adolescent sleep, health, and wellbeing. 

Year 22

Principal Investigator: Lauren Hale 

Funder: National Institutes of Health (5R01HD073352)

Title: Longitudinal Behavioral, Sociodemographic and Contextual Predictors of Young Adult Sleep Health and Well-being 

This project will add sleep-related questions to the Year 22 young adult general survey in the full FFCWS cohort. Then, on a subsample of approximately (n~900) adolescents who participated in the Year 15 actigraphy data collection, the project will collect 14 days of actigraphy data for sleep and physical activity, with a concurrent smartphone-based, twice-daily diary app collecting screen use and self-reported activity data (e.g., substance use, diet). This project enables the first actigraphy-based analyses of sleep trajectories from adolescence into young adulthood, and also seeks to identify the magnitude of sleep health disparities in young adulthood, and the extent to which contextual and behavioral factors account for social disparities in sleep. This project will also assess how sleep health trajectories across childhood and adolescence are associated with wellbeing in young adulthood, including physical health, social-emotional health, and socioeconomic wellbeing. Finally, this project will model within-person temporal dynamics between health and health risk behaviors (i.e., physical activity, pre-bed screen time, substance use, diet) and sleep health using two weeks of actigraphy and daily diary data. 

14. Cardiovascular Study

Principal Investigators: Daniel Notterman Donald Lloyd-Jones

Funder: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

Title: Fragile Families Cardiovascular Health Follow-Up Study

Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death and disability for adults in the US and disproportionately affect minorities and lower socioeconomic status (SES) Americans. In this project, we are studying cardiovascular health and subclinical cardiovascular disease in young adult participants (age approximately 22 years) of the FFCWS. We will perform an innovative, in-person examination to measure all components of cardiovascular health and early evidence of subclinical cardiovascular disease (including carotid ultrasonography, dietary and exercise activity, blood lipids and other clinically related assays) in order to better understand the role of early life adversity in the evolution of cardiovascular health and disease, and potential epigenetic mediation by DNA methylation.

15. Appending Administrative Data

Principal Investigators: Kathryn Edin & Jane Waldfogel 

Funder: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 

Title: Fragile Families & The Transition to Adulthood

This project investigates the feasibility, constraints, and processes involved with linking the FFCWS to a wide variety of administrative data sources across many domains: education, employment, labor, service utilization, health, vital statistics, and more. The goal of the project is to append this administrative data to the FFCWS in order to allow for analyses that would not be possible using the survey data alone. This grant also contributed to the Core survey development for the Year 22 survey. 

Linking administrative data to a large-scale survey is an extremely powerful tool for improving the survey data's robustness and for improving its overall utility. Such data enables researchers to study more nuanced patterns of service utilization,  program participation trajectories, educational outcomes, and labor market participation. It may also supplement the study with additional health data and vital statistics. This linked administrative data has the potential to fill in gaps in survey knowledge between FFCWS waves as well as verify existing data. 

16. FFG3 Study

Principal Investigators: Julien TeitlerNancy Reichman, & Dan Notterman

Funder: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development

Title: Fragile Families: The Third Generation

The intergenerational persistence of poor health and poverty and the quest to understand underlying processes underscore the importance of rich multigenerational data. Very few existing datasets contain comprehensive information on social, environmental, and biological factors over the life course and across generations; lack of such data has limited attempts to identify the processes shaping health disparities, economic inequalities, and causal linkages between the two. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) is the longest running birth cohort study in the U.S. that is based on a national probability sample. It follows parents (G1, for Generation 1)—both mothers and fathers—and their children (G2) who were born in 1998–2000. The G2 children are now having children of their own. We will expand the FFCWS study by conducting a perinatal survey on the health of the third generation (G3) children, early parenthood experiences of G2, and the characteristics of households and families into which G3 are born, as well as collecting saliva samples from the G3 children and their non-FFCWS parents and stool samples from the G3 children; we refer to this project as the FFG3 study. The augmented data will have many unique and valuable features, including: (1) three generations of sociodemographic, environmental, and biological data; (2) extensive data on parenting in two generations (G1 and G2); (3) data on siblings and half-siblings (in G3); (4) genetic data on trios (G3 children and both of their parents); and (5) comprehensive data on perinatal health (pre-pregnancy, prenatal, delivery, neonatal, and postpartum factors) and circumstances in two generations (G2 & G3). The FFG3 study will facilitate novel and important analyses of intergenerational transmission of health, intergenerational relationships within families, and gene*environment effects on health. It will also provide an essential foundation for future G3 data collection at subsequent developmental transitions including school readiness at the transition to school, and health and development in middle childhood, adolescence, and the transition to adulthood. 

17. Systems Involvement

Principal Investigators: Kathryn Edin & Amanda Geller

Funder: National Institute of Justice 

Title: The Implications of Early Justice System Involvement for the Transition to Adulthood: Expansion and Analysis of the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study

The purpose of this project is to expand the FFCWS data collection to include neighborhood systems-level data matched according to young adult respondent’s residential locations. Expanded data collection will include: 5-year American Community Surveys (ACS) data for demographic makeup and socioeconomic conditions, community violence variables retrieved from the Gun Violence Archive, and police violence measures obtained from the Fatal Encounters Database. The data appendages, coupled with existing data collection on young adults’ trajectories of behavior and their social environments, will enable analyses that improve our understanding of life course development and the role of the criminal justice system.