Towards Improving Surveys of Living Arrangements among Poor African Americans

Article excerpt


This paper examines a mismatch between the surveys used to study U.S. household composition and the dynamics of living arrangements prevailing among many low-income African Americans. Recent changes in surveys by the U.S. Census Bureau described below are partially responsive to this need, but not nearly sufficient. Historically, U.S. survey instruments have been organized around measuring the number of households that include a married heterosexual couple with their children and the proportion of households or families that deviate from this common pattern. In this manner, these questionnaires have presumed that the married nuclear family is the focal point of social organization in the U.S. (Edgell & Docka, 2007; Gring-Pemble, 2003; Smith, 1993). We refer to this perspective as the marriage paradigm. This framework is proving increasingly insufficient for understanding prevailing household living arrangements, especially among minority populations (Seltzer et al., 2005). Marriage among African Americans, especially low-income African Americans, has been in decline for decades (Ruggles, 1994; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). Additionally, low-income African American youths are less likely to report that they expect to get married suggesting this pattern may be deeply entrenched (Crissey, 2005; Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2007).

Improving survey questions involves operationalizing our growing understanding of the prevailing paradigms for household and family formation to measure a wider range of relationship statuses. Based on a synthesis of the literature, we contend that many low-income African Americans are involved with a paradigm for family formation that needs to be understood on its own terms. Many low-income African Americans (perhaps especially those living in the inner city) engage in a series of short-lived cohabitations leading to children with a succession of partners (Furstenberg, 1995a; Lichter & Qian, 2008; Manning & Smock, 2000). Among low-income African Americans, cohabitation relationships are much less likely to result in marriage and are often short lived (Brown, 2000; Carlson, McLanahan, & England, 2004; Smock & Manning, 2004). This results in multiple-partner fertility in which a female has children with more than one biological father or a male has biological children by more than one female (Carlson & Furstenberg, 2006; Golub & Dunlap, 2010; Guzzo & Furstenberg, 2007a, 2007b; Manlove, Logan, Ikramullah, & Holcombe, 2008). Typically, the female partner retains custody of any children when a relationship ends. These single mothers are then in a strong position to obtain government subsidized housing. When a relationship ends, males often move back in with their mother or another relative, start a new relationship, or live on the street. Females tend to have more established living arrangements than their male counterparts. Hence, when a new relationship forms it is typically the male that is invited to move in with a female and her children from any prior relationships. When a new partner moves in, he becomes integrated into the household and typically serves as a social father to any children present for as long as he remains (Dunlap, Golub, & Benoit, 2010; Furstenberg, 1995b; Jarrett, Roy, & Burton, 2002; Jayakody & Kalil, 2002; Roy & Burton, 2007).

As yet, the literature has not settled upon a term for this living arrangement paradigm. There are a variety of terms used to refer to specific aspects of this experience. Serial cohabitation emphasizes having multiple successive partners. Multiple-partner fertility emphasizes having children with more than one partner. Fragile families emphasizes that cohabiting partners of young children are unlikely to stay together. At this time, we use the term transient domesticity to emphasize the tenuous nature of the relationships involved.

To date, most of our work on transient domesticity has been ethnographic and focused on urban residents. …