Over the last several decades, family composition in the United States has changed and more diversity is present in terms of family structure. Currently, children live in a wide range of family structures that differ according to the number of parents (e.g., two parents versus single parent) and types of parents (e.g., biological versus step) present, as well as the relationships between those parents (e.g., marriage versus cohabitation). Still other children live with no parents and instead reside with grandparents or other caregivers.
Research demonstrates that family structure is linked to child outcomes, but that these differentials in child well-being are substantively small. Family structure is a marker of children’s access to parental, economic, and social resources that, in turn, shape their well-being. Research also indicates that certain family forms—such as cohabitation—are not legally recognized, which may mean fewer formal and informal social supports for such families; this, in turn, could account for some of the differentials observed in children’s outcomes by family structure. For example, parents in married stepfamilies, cohabiting biological families, and cohabiting stepfamilies are less likely to pool their incomes together than those in married biological families, even though access to a parent’s cohabiting partner’s income would lift a substantial share of children living in cohabiting families out of poverty.
However, much research on children’s family structure fails to pay attention to these important nuances and overlooks many of the myriad intersections between parental type and parental relationship status. Rather, studies typically enumerate only the most common family forms, distinguishing among married, cohabiting, and single-parent families and sometimes delineating two biological parent versus stepparent families. Unpacking family structure reveals diverse family configurations among children in families with low incomes, which matters for children’s well-being. Programs that serve children and families should consider this diversity when making decisions about the individuals and families they serve, the types of programming they offer, and the degree to which this programming is inclusive of all families.
In this brief, we describe family structure variation among children living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (or “families with low incomes”)—families that are most often served by a range of human and social service programs in the United States. Using data from the 2022 Annual Social and Economic Supplement Current Population Survey from IPUMS (CPS-ASEC), we unpack family diversity by examining family type, parent type, and union type (see Box 1 for definitions). We look at this diversity for all children in families with low incomes, and separately for children across three developmental periods: birth to age 5, ages 6 to 11, and ages 12 to 17.
The Marriage Strengthening Research & Dissemination Center (MAST Center) conducts research on marriage and romantic relationships in the United States and on healthy marriage and relationship education programs. As the MAST Center winds down, we are starting to include MAST content on childtrends.org.
Family structure refers to children’s relationship to the parent or parent figures in their household and, where relevant, to the parents’ relationship to each other. We consider three dimensions of family structure: (1) family type, (2) parent/relationship type, and (3) parental union status.
Family type: We distinguish among four family types. In two-parent families, both parents have the same parental relationships with the child—biological or adopted. Stepfamilies are composed of one parent related to the child biologically or by adoption and one parent who is the resident partner or spouse of the biological/adoptive parent (i.e., stepparent). In single-parent families, only one biological/adoptive parent is residing with the child. Finally, non-parent families are those in which no biological/adoptive/step parent is living in the household with the child.
Parent/relationship type: Parental relationship types are either biological, adoptive, or step. Non-parental relationship types include grandparent, other relative, non-relative, or foster.
Union type: Parental union type is determined by whether the parent(s)—or non-parental caregivers—are married, cohabiting, or single. In two-parent households, parents (or caregivers) can be married or cohabiting. All single-parent families are assumed to be single since there is no partner living with them in the household. We also distinguish between single-mother and single-father families.
The following sets of figures depict children’s family structure in 2022 across family types, parent/relationship types, and parents’ union types for all children from birth to age 18 (Section 1) and for children birth to age 5 (Section 2), children ages 6 to 11 (Section 3), and children ages 12 to 18 (Section 4) in families with low incomes. Panel A in each section shows children’s living arrangements across the four family types. Panels B and C build on Panel A to reveal additional layers of family structure diversity. Panel B additionally considers the parental or non-parental relationship type, in addition to family type. Panel C additionally considers parental (or non-parental) union type, in addition to family type.
Figure 1A shows that two-parent families were the most common family type for children (44.6%), followed by single-parent families (37.7%), stepfamilies (13.2%), and families in which no parent is present (4.5%).
When we add parent/relationship type to family type (Figure 1B), we see more complexity in the step- and non-parent family types.
When we add union type to family type (Figure 1C), we see more complexity across all family types.
Figure 2A shows that two-parent families were the most common family type for children (53.7%), followed by single-parent families (34.2%), stepfamilies (9.4%), and families in which no parent is present (2.7%).
When we add parent/relationship type to family type (Figure 2B), we see more complexity in the step- and non-parent family types.
When we add union type to family type (Figure 2C), we see still more complexity across all family types.
Figure 3A shows that two-parent families were the most common family type for children (44.5%), followed by single-parent families (37.8%), stepfamilies (13.9%), and families in which no parent is present (3.8%).
When we add parent/relationship type to family type (Figure 3B), we see more complexity in the step- and non-parent family types.
When we add union type to family type (Figure 3C), we see still more complexity across all family types.
Figure 4A shows that single-parent families were the most common family type for children (41.0%), followed by two-parent families (36.0%), stepfamilies (16.1%), and families in which no parent is present (6.8%).
When we add parent/relationship type to family type (Figure 4B), we see more complexity in the step- and non-parent family types.
When we add union type to family type (Figure 4C), we see still more complexity across all family types.
Figures 2 to 4 present children’s family type, parent type, and parents’ union status by age group (birth to age 5, ages 6 to 11, ages 12 to 17). These figures reveal that, as children get older, some children experience family transitions. Specifically:
This analysis illustrates the importance of looking beyond broad measures of family structure to capture the substantial variation in children’s family configurations by family type, parent type, and parental union type, as well as how these factors intersect. Although our results are cross-sectional—and, as such, provide only a point-in-time snapshot—they suggest that children’s family configurations are diverse and multidimensional. Programs should consider this diversity when thinking about the individuals and families they serve, the types of programming they offer, and the inclusiveness of that programming for all families.
 In a minority of cases, the stepparent adopts the child, changing the parental relationship to adoptive. A small share of stepfamilies is composed of two stepparents.
Juteau, G., Brown, S. L., Manning, W. D., & Westrick-Payne, K. (2023). Exploring family structure diversity among children in families with low incomes. Child Trends. https://doi.org/10.56417/4048v2670h
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