These days, discussions about family structure tend to focus on two key facts. First, about 40 percent of children in the U.S. are born to unmarried parents — a figure that was around 5 percent in the 1950s. Second, 40–50 percent of first marriages end in divorce.
In and of themselves, these are incredibly important parts of the picture. Both are ways that children end up living apart from one of their biological parents, usually their father. (Unmarried parents normally welcome their children into the world together, but two-thirds of them are neither married nor cohabiting five years later.) And in turn, father absence has been compellingly linked to a wide variety of social ills.
But there’s an additional layer of complication to the disintegration of the American family. Understandably, parents who break up when their children are young rarely remain celibate; they find new partners and may even have additional children in these unions. We are only beginning to grasp the effects these various “complex” or “blended” family configurations have on kids.
One emerging area of research involves “multiple-partner fertility,” in which a parent has children with more than one partner. Until 2014, none of the Census Bureau’s major surveys even asked questions about this kind of family structure, though some smaller studies did. But in a report in October, the bureau published an analysis nailing down the basic numbers it had collected three years before.
Of all Americans age 15 or older, 10 percent have children with multiple partners. This rises to 16 percent of those who have at least one child and 21 percent of those with two or more children. Looking at it from the kids’ perspective, 18 percent of American minors live with a biological half-sibling. Multiple-partner fertility disproportionately occurs among the less educated, African Americans, and Hispanics.
These complicated family arrangements were certainly far less common before the explosion of nonmarital births since the late 1960s. Has this trend been a problem for kids? There is a lot of evidence it has. Yet there is strikingly little that public policy can do to move the needle on this issue.
The Census Bureau’s report highlighted a staggering variety of ways that life becomes harder when one has children with multiple partners. A parent might owe child-support payments to someone outside the household in which he’s raising his new family, or might depend on such payments from an unreliable former lover. Mothers with children by multiple men receive less support from family even though they by definition have bigger extended families; it appears that the situation creates an “ambiguity” regarding the “boundary” of the household. (It’s not hard to imagine, say, a grandmother being less eager to watch her grandchild when that entails also watching a second kid from her son’s ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend.) Men who start a second family spend a lot less time with their first round of kids.
Further, it’s not just the ongoing struggle with a complex situation that creates problems; multiple-partner fertility also indicates that children have already been through a lot. As the sociologist Karen Benjamin Guzzo once told Science Daily, it “means, for first-born children, that they usually experienced their biological parents splitting up — if they were together at all; lived in a single-mother household for some time; experienced their mother finding a new partner at least once and perhaps lived with a stepfather; and finally experienced their mother having a baby with a new partner.”
The sheer number of “partnership transitions” that many children go through today, even very early in life, is striking. According to one study, while 87 percent of kids born to married mothers don’t experience any such transitions in their first three years, this is true for only half of children born to cohabiting mothers and fewer than a third of kids born to mothers who are either unattached or dating a man they don’t live with. When mothers aren’t at least living with someone when they give birth, their kids have more than a one-in-five shot of experiencing three or more transitions by age three. This chance is below one in ten for kids of cohabiting mothers and below three in 100 when mothers are married.
Even someone who has not lived through such transitions can imagine the stress and frustration they create for children and parents alike. But they also seem to affect kids’ outcomes — their behavior, their adult mental health, and so on.
The fundamental difficulty of studying family structure is that there’s no way to do a real experiment. We cannot randomly assign some parents to stay together and others to live or have children with a succession of different partners. We can certainly look to see whether kids from unstable families do worse than other kids with the same demographic attributes — and without question, they do. But even within demographic groups, parents with unstable relationships may have hard-to-measure characteristics that set them apart. These characteristics, if they affect parenting or are passed down to children genetically, might be what’s driving the difference in the kids’ outcomes.
But in 2013, Princeton’s Sara McLanahan (one of the most prominent researchers working in this area) and two co-authors rounded up nearly 50 studies that in various ways tried to work around this problem. Their review focused on father absence in general, but it included studies that looked at the number of family-structure transitions that kids experienced — and the researchers noted that, at any rate, father absence is virtually synonymous with ongoing instability, as “stable single-mother households are quite rare, at least among children born to unmarried parents.” The outcomes analyzed ranged from “attention problems” to lower grades and college attendance to aggression.
The studies employed a variety of methods, including looking at individual kids to see whether their situations worsened after their parents separated or got a new partner, comparing “siblings who differ in their exposure to separation” (because siblings who are younger during the separation will experience more years of it before adulthood), and several more sophisticated statistical techniques. Such approaches aren’t nearly as good as a real experiment, but they’re the next best thing because they provide plausible control groups: In a before-and-after study, each child is his own control, and sibling studies exploit the fact that brothers and sisters share both their genes and their environments to a large degree, making it easier to isolate such factors from the effects of separation.
Sometimes the results were muddy, suggesting that instability hurt in some situations but not others or affected some outcomes but not others, and some studies failed to find any effect at all. But on the whole, the unsurprising conclusion was that it’s not good for kids to grow up amid their parents’ romantic turmoil. “The evidence is strongest and most consistent for outcomes such as high-school graduation, children’s social-emotional adjustment, and adult mental health,” McLanahan et al. wrote.
Robert Cherry, an economist at Brooklyn College, has raised other implications of family instability, and especially multi-partner fertility, as well. Abuse is more common in single-parent households than in nuclear families, but it’s even more common when an unrelated adult male is in the household. Discipline problems among children, especially boys, show the same pattern. And since there’s a strong black–white disparity in family stability, multi-partner fertility may partly explain a variety of other troubling racial gaps.
Perhaps the scariest thing about these trends, though, is that there’s little we can do about them. They result from deep changes in American society that will not be undone: the rising economic self-sufficiency of women (thanks to both work and welfare), the cratering economic position of low-skilled men, the sexual revolution and the attendant cultural acceptance of non-traditional family structures. All of these shifts either decrease the incentive to marry or remove a disincentive to having children out of wedlock.
Certainly, there are things we could do that might help on the margins. We could take a hard look at welfare programs to ensure they are not structured in a way that encourages or unnecessarily facilitates irresponsible childbearing decisions. We could take steps to improve the economic position of low-skilled men, which would make them more attractive marriage partners, though public policy’s ability to do so is limited. We could help women avoid becoming pregnant unintentionally, which is a common first step toward multiple-partner fertility. (Many conservatives have understandable reservations about them, but I made the case for “long-acting, reversible” forms of contraception in NR in 2014: “On a LARC,” December 31.) We could keep developing and studying marriage-promotion programs, though such programs have proven ineffective thus far. And we could work hard to bring back a culture that values the nuclear family, especially as there are now many on the center-left who recognize the problems that unstable families create for children.
But none of this can change the basic facts of the situation. For the foreseeable future, single motherhood will be an economically plausible and socially tolerated option for starting a family, the labor market will not value less educated men as highly as it once did, and sexual mores will not return to what they were in the 1950s. Simply put, economic, technological, and cultural developments have conspired to throw the lives of far too many American children into chaos, and the most we can do is study the problem and tinker around its edges.