Complex families are more common, but policy fails to account for them

Policy fails to account for complex families: children pay the price

By Marcia J. Carlson and , | June 2015 

Couple relationships are more unstable, but people are having as many children. That means more complex families, particularly among the poor.

Today there are more complex families. That’s down to a simple explanation – parental unions are much more unstable than 50 years ago, but we’re having just as many children. So the co-location of marriage, living together and biological connectedness that characterized families of the mid-20th century is far less common today. There are now many more models, such as mothers living with children from two different partners, fathers living with stepchildren but away from biological children, and children living with half-siblings, whose biological father might be elsewhere. These are just a few examples of the many variants.

But complex families have different experiences. Families have become more complex for some more than for others. Complexity is correlated in the US with minority racial/ethnic background, poor education and a history of incarceration for fathers. As Andrew Cherlin, the US sociologist, has commented, stable marriage seems to have become a luxury good, much more likely to be gained and maintained by those with higher socio-economic status. We don’t have any evidence that complexity has a worse impact at the poorer end of the socio-economic scale, but we do know that it is more prevalent among this social group. It is also easy to see that having access to plentiful resources makes managing life easier, so having less is harder to manage for an intact family – even more so for a complex family.

“Complexity dilutes investments in children, and policy has been slow to respond. Social programs must recognize that many children spend time in different households and that adults may have family commitments beyond a single household.”

Does it matter that children are being raised in family forms of varying complexity? Yes, to the extent that complexity dilutes resources available to children. When a commitment to one single family is broken up and parents are coordinating across different households—especially when new partners are involved—children may not get as much from their families, both in terms of money and time. For example, Dad might not trust his money to his child’s Mom in the same way as he did when they lived together, and economies of scale that sprang from having everyone in the family living in one place are lost. Also, if Dad’s children (by different mothers) live in two households, it may be harder for him to spend quality time with them. And moms may be navigating complex stepfamily dynamics if their new partners aren’t related to some or all of their co-resident children.

There can be other losses. Kristen Harknett and Jean Knab, US sociologists, have found that when a parent has another child with a new partner, there is less extended family support. Grandparents, they have found, are more involved with children when parents are married, perhaps because they consider that the perceived permanence of marriage makes investment in the union more secure.

A major outcome from more complex families has been the contingency of fatherhood. Men in stable, co-residential relationships typically have an important role in the hands-on care of their children, one that is increasing as mothers work more outside the home. These men are more likely to be well-educated and of higher socio-economic status, with marriage and parenting going together more like they once did in a so-called “package deal”. In contrast, less well-educated men are more likely to be in unions that do not last, and, because mothers tend to be primary caregivers after separation, fathers can quickly become marginal to their children’s lives. Such men can lose a major part of their identity as fathers, and their children miss out on the social capital that could be leveraged from them.

Beyond the individual effects on children, the absence of fathers from their children’s lives has huge potential societal impact. If fathers are not spending much time with their children, they may be less attuned to children’s growth and development, meaning that millions of people are less aware than previous generations about the need to invest in young people, in schools and other social institutions that nurture children. In a democracy, this could affect our policy choices.

We need to become more sensitive to the increasing complexity of families, with social programs recognizing that many children spend time in different households and that adults may have family commitments beyond a single household. If, as is often the case now, one parent – the one with custody – tends to hold eligibility to benefits, there is a risk that one parent will exclude the other parent in order to retain such benefits.

What’s the best way to tackle the issues thrown up by family complexity? It seems unlikely that the stability of childbearing unions/marriage is suddenly going to be restored – or that public policy can affect this very much. And there is no sign that the value people set on having children is going to fall away.

In “Generation Unbound”, published by the Brookings Institution, Isabel V. Sawhill, a long-time proponent of marriage, has reassessed its future, arguing that the key for raising families successfully is not marriage but having children later, when individuals are more mature and unions are likely more stable.

We also should shift the focus of gender discussions. We have rightly spent a great deal of energy exploring how to challenge the exclusion of women from the public sphere, in particular the work place. Perhaps, we need to examine much more closely a phenomenon that has been taking place contemporaneously – the increasing exclusion of some men from the private sphere. This experience is costing men and children – and possibly women too – a great deal in terms of social and economic capital that is not leveraged for children and families.


 Carlson MJ & Meyer DR (2014), Family complexity, poverty, and public policy, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 654.1

 Carlson MJ & Furstenberg FF (2006), The prevalence and correlates of multipartnered fertility among urban U.S. parents, Journal of Marriage and Family, 68.3

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