Young Children and Their Complex Families: Facing Some Uncomfortable Facts

It’s a fact that children born today are born into families that look dramatically different from families of a generation ago.  Today, more children than ever are born outside of marriage, largely due to delays in marriage and increases in cohabitation. Recent estimates by Child Trends show that 41 percent of all births in 2009 were to unmarried couples, roughly half to cohabiting couples. A related New York Times article also noted that this pattern is more pronounced among women 30 and under, for whom more than half of all births occur outside of marriage. A newly-released report, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” ups the ante again, raising important questions about what these changes mean for parents and children.

It’s also a fact – an uncomfortable fact for many to hear – that in the United States, children born outside of marriage tend to do less well across a range of outcomes than do children born to married parents.[1]

This is true even for children whose unmarried parents are romantically involved or living together.  They are more likely to be poor, do less well in school, and have more behavioral and health problems. Much of this can be attributed to the fact that these children begin life with fewer socioeconomic resources, on average, than those born to married parents. However, children born outside of marriage also tend to experience much more instability in their home lives than do other children.[2].

 Diagram

Many children born outside of marriage––even to parents who are living together––will soon see their parents separate. As a result, these children are substantially less likely to live with both biological parents at age 5 than are children born to married parents. Child Trends’ analyses of a sample of children born in 2001 show that 87 percent of children born to married parents still lived with both parents at age 5 compared to 55 percent of children born to cohabiting parents and 16 percent of children born to parents who did not live together.

Additionally, children born to unmarried parents are more likely to see their parents begin and end new relationships that introduce new adults into the household. Among the same sample of children, our study found that 12 percent of children born to cohabiting parents and 18 percent of children born to parents not living together are living with  a step-parent by age five, compared to only 4 percent of children born to married parents. These new partners may already have children from prior relationships (introducing step siblings into the household) or have additional children with the child’s parent (introducing half siblings). These complex family arrangements can add stress to family life and affect how parents’ time and money are spent.

It is also a fact that these changes in family structure are disproportionately affecting families that are already disadvantaged, widening the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in modern America.

Jason DeParle illustrated this divide in a powerful New York Times article featuring Child Trends’ analyses. For example, in 2009, only 8 percent of births to women with a college degree or more occurred outside of marriage compared to 55 percent of births to women with a high school degree or GED. This gap is larger now than it was 20 years ago.

Given the increasing complexity of today’s families, particularly for children born to mothers with less education and fewer resources, it is important to identify ways to strengthen family relationships regardless of what they look like. Additionally, we know from research that supporting the positive involvement of parents in their children’s life, even if they do not live with them, will likely help children thrive.

Elizabeth Wildsmith, Senior Research Scientist

Mindy E. Scott, Senior Research Scientist

[1] McLanahan, S., Garfinkel, I., Mincy, R., & Donahue, E. (2010). Introducing the Issue The Future of Children, 20(2), 3-16.

[2] Ibid.

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