Correction, February 13, 2024: We have updated the definition of “grandfamilies” in this brief’s Key Terms box to instead provide a definition for “grandfamilies or kinship families.” We feel this revised definition, which recognizes the overlap between these family types, is more inclusive in recognizing the critical roles that a range of supportive adults may play in raising children.
A collection of programs and services known as the social safety net aims to ensure the well-being of children and families with low incomes by providing government support to fill gaps between these families’ resources and their needs. However, because safety net eligibility standards often center middle class families led by two married parents—and fail to account for the needs of a diverse range of family structures—this brief provides recommendations to policymakers on creating a more equitable social safety net.
Families do not exist in isolation but are instead deeply connected to the socioeconomic and policy environments in which they live. Changing economic conditions play a key role in how families live and form. For example, research has shown that economic stressors, such as job instability or recessions, can influence family formation, leading to shifts in living arrangements, delayed marriages, or changes in childbearing behaviors. Historically, some policymakers have promoted the two-parent, married household as a potential solution to poverty, and have often framed this household structure as a way to enhance economic stability for families.
This framing remains at the forefront of ongoing discussions around family structure and child well-being. However, marriage is not equally accessible nor beneficial for all families due to various barriers, including restrictive immigration policies, the rise in mass incarceration, and limited job opportunities. It is also important to recognize that diverse family structures carry their own unique strengths and assets that provide benefits to children.
As the economic landscape in the United States continues to change and American family structures remain diverse, policymakers must consider whether our social policies and programs sufficiently support all families. For many families, particularly those with low incomes, the social safety net is a critical factor in ensuring family and child well-being. Despite the positive impact of various social safety net programs on many individuals and families, there remains a gap in adequate support for families across a range of diverse structures, highlighting the need for more inclusive policies that recognize various family forms.
In this brief, we first describe what families look like today, including historical context on drivers of family diversity and a discussion of how two-biological-parent, middle-class nuclear families—which are typically heterosexual, male-led, and married—do not accurately represent the prevailing standard for many families. We then explore the ways in which four notable social safety net programs are not set up to adequately support all family structures. We end with recommendations for policymakers in hopes of creating a more equitable social safety net system for all families.
Since the mid-20th century, American society has perpetuated the idea that the ideal household is a two-biological-parent, middle-class nuclear family. However, these typically heterosexual male-led, married families have not been the norm for many families since the founding of the United States. Currently, there is no single dominant U.S. family structure. In fact, diverse family composition has always been present in and across households—particularly among families with members who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and those with low incomes. For example, Indigenous families value collectivism and established clan systems, relationships with non-nuclear family members, and ritualistic adoptive relationships. Similarly, for Asian, Latino, and Black Americans, multigenerational households and extended kinship networks that include nonbiological relatives have been a critical resource for family well-being.
Social safety net: A combination of government programs and policies aimed at providing financial and social assistance to individuals and families in need.
Family structure: A description of children’s relationship to the parent or parent figures in their household and, where relevant, the parents’ relationship to each other.
Two-generation household: A multigenerational household often consisting of parents and their children (either under age 18, or adult).
Three-generation household: A multigenerational household often consisting of grandparents, adult children, and grandchildren.
Four-generation household: A multigenerational household often consisting of great-grandparents, grandparents, adult children, and their children.
Grandfamilies or kinship families: Terms used interchangeably to refer to households headed by biological or nonbiological adult caregivers, including grandparents, who live with children under age 18, with no parents in the home.
Structural inequities, largely racism, have historically prevented people of color from forming and maintaining relationships and families in the ways they desire. Colonization, slavery, dispossession of land, forced assimilation, and other discriminatory laws and practices have shaped the agency one has over the composition of their family. These historical traumas—along with the economic, educational, and social inequities that stem from generational atrocities—have resulted in lasting impacts on relationships and family structures, particularly in Black and Indigenous communities. For example, assimilation-based policies, such as the boarding school system, destroyed traditional kinship systems and family units by removing Indigenous children from their homes. In the present day, the enduring legacy of these transgressions, along with evolved barriers like mass incarceration and immigration policies, contribute to family formation patterns across racial and ethnic groups.
Communities that are impacted by a historical legacy of harm and systemic barriers related to race, ethnicity, or income continue to form relationships and families through diverse pathways; however, these may not include marriage or a two-parent, male-led household. The notion that married, heterosexual two-parent households are ideal for American families disregards the inaccessibility of this structure and the lack of benefits it may provide for some groups. Furthermore, it ignores the cultural assets and protective factors on which many of these groups draw to thrive and raise families. For many families from marginalized communities, childrearing occurs in a variety of forms that offer unique and critical benefits to children. Below, we review how families have formed recently, with special attention to families with low incomes.
Among two-parent families, there is important diversity in relationship types and living arrangements. For instance, children may live with married or unmarried (cohabiting) biological/adoptive parents, married or unmarried (cohabiting) stepparents, or two parents who are living together but not in a romantic relationship (coparents). Due to the complexity of some of these unions, like stepfamilies, it can be challenging to identify the number of families that exist. In 2021, 65 percent of children from birth to age 17 live with two married parents and 4 percent lived with two unmarried cohabiting parents. A Child Trends analysis of the 2021 Current Population Survey found that, among families with low incomes that include at least one parent and one child under age 18, 43 percent involve a married couple and 8 percent involve cohabitating parents. Families also exist across households and may involve multiple biological and nonbiological adults actively engaged in childrearing. For example, children may live alone with a single parent (but have a nonresident biological parent living elsewhere) and may have step- and half-siblings that live in the same or different households. These family structures are also fluid, as parents re-partner and have additional children. In 2021, 26 percent of children from birth to age 17 live with one parent. Among families with low incomes, 49 percent are headed by a single parent. In the case of multiple partner fertility, about 25 percent of parents of two or more children had biological children with more than one person.
Although present since the founding of the United States, multigenerational living—or residing with a grandparent or extended family members—is becoming increasingly more common. There are four common types of multigenerational households: two-generation, three-generation, four-generation, and grandfamilies. Please see our key terms box for definitions. Grandparent co-residence can offer numerous benefits to families, including the opportunity to pass down cultural traditions (e.g., language, family history), shared housing and economic support, and an additional source of care and emotional support for children. Today, multigenerational households are particularly prevalent among BIPOC and immigrant families. For example, 21 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children live with a grandparent, as do 18 percent of Asian, 17 percent of Black, and 15 percent of Latino children. These numbers are also similar among families with low incomes. Twelve percent of families with low incomes report living with at least one grandparent, and 8 percent report sharing a household with someone other than a grandparent. Furthermore, 18 percent of single parent-headed families with low incomes live with at least one grandparent and 8 percent live with someone other than a grandparent.
Economic conditions shape how families form, and especially influence childbearing and romantic partnerships. The effects of economic stressors, including employment and housing status, are particularly evident in families with low incomes—many of which have diverse family structures. However, the prevalence of these stressors is a consequence of economic conditions rather than family structure. As mentioned, extended family networks and fictive kin provide significant levels of social, emotional, and financial support among many historically marginalized communities. Nonetheless, there is a need for greater economic and social support for families with diverse structures. Social safety net (also known as social welfare) policies and programs aim to provide income support to families and are closely interconnected to family structure, as changes in one affect the other. Yet safety net programs’ structure and eligibility requirements have exacerbated an existing need for support among diverse families (e.g., inconsistent standards for eligibility and benefit determination for different family structures impacts the amount, type, and time it takes to receive assistance).
Today, many families seek services provided by various social safety net programs, which ultimately aim to improve the well-being of individuals and families with low incomes. Recent statistics suggest that around three in 10 people, including nearly half of U.S. children, participate in a social safety net program. Participation in multiple programs is also common, with 12 percent of adults and 33 percent of children receiving benefits from more than one program.
While the social safety net has positively improved outcomes for many families, many of these programs have historical ties to racism and sexism. Although a comprehensive exploration of the legacies of racism and sexism within our current social safety net policies and programs is beyond the scope of this brief, it is important to acknowledge the growing body of literature that explores how social welfare policy and practice are infused with racial biases.
In the table below, we highlight four federal programs—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and the Child Support Services (CSS) program—that provide differing levels of support to families with children across diverse family structures. Many income support policies and programs, including TANF, EITC, and SNAP, are tied to levels of work and family structure (e.g., different benefit structures tied to family arrangements such as marriage or household residence). The CSS program also affects family well-being as it attempts to ensure financial contributions from nonresident parents. As of 2019, overall estimates of participation in the social safety net indicate that EITC (47 million participants), SNAP (37.5 million), and child support services (23.1 million) are among the five largest programs in the United States; and, while TANF (2.4 million) is one of the smallest programs, it was historically viewed as a key program in reducing poverty for families with children. In the table, we describe the intent of each program, along with some limitations that may impact families with diverse structures.
With growing attention on the importance of advancing equitable social safety net policies and programs, we conclude with four recommendations that policymakers should consider to ensure that all families and children supported by the social safety net thrive.
The authors are grateful to the following individuals for their feedback throughout the writing of this brief: Yiyu Chen, April Wilson, Dana Thomson, Kristen Harper, and Maria A. Ramos-Olazagasti. They are also grateful to Ria Shelton for her fact-checking support.
 Until June 2023, the Office of Child Support Services (OCSS) was referred to as the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). This name change reflects the program’s commitment to serve the whole family. In this brief, we use the term “child support services (CSS)” to align with this change.
Kim, L., Logan, D., & Scott, M. E. (2023). Supporting diverse family structures through social safety net programs. Child Trends. DOI: 10.56417/6087g1130v
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