Method: Using a sample of 1592 unmarried mothers from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW), this study examines whether neighborhood dysfunction affects family structure transition and maternal stress, and whether these two factors subsequently affect paternal engagement. FFCW is a longitudinal panel study of about 5000 newborns and their parents across 20 large cities in the U.S. initiated in 1998, with an oversampling of unwed birth families. The current study uses data from wave 3 and 4 surveys. The independent variable of neighborhood dysfunction is a latent construct of three widely validated measures assessed at wave 3: neighborhood cohesion (5 items), control (5 items), and disorder (8 items), where higher values indicate higher levels of dysfunction. Dependent variable father engagement is measured at wave 4 by 8 items regarding fathers' support to and cooperation with mothers in childcare issues, where higher values indicate more engagement. One mediating variable, family structure transition, reflects family structural transition between wave 3 and wave 4: from cohabitation to non-cohabitation (coded as 0), remaining unchanged (1), or from non-cohabitation to cohabitation/marriage (2). Another mediating variable maternal stress is a latent construct of 12 items assessing mother's stress related to childcare, where higher values indicate more stress. Mothers' age, race, and social economic factors were controlled. Mplus 6.1 is used for structural equation modeling estimation.
Results: The structural equation modeling estimation indicates that (1) neighborhood dysfunction is negatively associated with family structure upward transition (B=-.06, p<.01), but is positively associated with maternal stress (B=.06, p<.001); (2) family structure upward transition is positively associated with father engagement (B=.23, p<.001), but maternal stress is negatively associated with father engagement (B=-.17, p<.001).
Conclusion: The study reveals two pathways by which neighborhood dysfunction affects father engagement via its influence on family structure transition and maternal stress. Policy and practice should be aware that neighborhood dysfunction can impair family well-being in a comprehensive and fundamental manner, and programs aimed at father engagement improvement should also consider integrating services that can counteract the detrimental influence of neighborhood dysfunction on family structure upward transition and maternal stress.