Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Structure and Child Well-Being: Integrating Family Complexity

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Family Structure and Child Well-Being: Integrating Family Complexity

Article excerpt

It is well established that children's living arrangements are diverse. Fewer children reside with two biological married parents and more live with unmarried parents, whether in families with two biological cohabiting parents, two cohabiting stepparents, a single mother, or a single father. Children also reside in stepfamilies, and increasingly these are unmarried (cohabiting) rather than married families (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). The rise in unmarried and stepfamily living has coincided with a rapid acceleration in family instability, with more children transitioning across multiple living arrangements over the course of childhood (Raley & Wildsmith, 2004).

This traditional approach to conceptualizing children's living arrangements relies on a measure of family structure that captures children's relationships to the parental adult(s) in the household, ignoring children's relationships to siblings as well as family members outside the household. Growing family instability coupled with rising unwed childbearing portends more family complexity, a term that typically describes the presence of half- or stepsiblings in the household. Nearly 15% of children reside with at least one half- or stepsibling (Kreider & Ellis, 2011). Comparatively few studies have considered family complexity, but the evidence to date suggests that family complexity is negatively associated with child well-being (Gennetian, 2005; Halpern-Meekin & Tach, 2008; Tillman, 2008; Yuan, 2009). Bridging the family structure and family complexity literatures, we illustrate how these two measures can be integrated in studies of the linkages between family composition and child well-being using data from the 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP;

The purpose of this study was to evaluate whether family complexity is uniquely associated with child well-being net of the standard measure of family structure. In other words, is there value added to including a measure of family complexity in studies on family structure variation in child well-being? In addition, is the role of family complexity contingent on family structure? We argue that from a theoretical standpoint, it is important to account not only for parents but also siblings in the family environment. In addition to providing a descriptive portrait of today's children in complex families, we empirically tested two assertions: that family complexity is (a) distinct from family structure and (b) related to child well-being. Using data from the 2008 SIPP, we focused on two indicators of economic well-being among children: (a) the family income-to-needs ratio and (b) public assistance receipt.


Research on family structure has burgeoned over the past few decades, as scholars have carefully investigated living arrangement patterns and their implications for child well-being (Brown, 2010; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Children residing outside of families with two biological married parents tend to fare less well, on average, than those in this family form. The differences among children in single-parent (mother or father only), married stepparent, and cohabiting families (two biological parents or stepparent) are comparatively small. This pattern holds across several domains of child outcomes, including cognitive, behavioral, and physical and mental health (e.g., Artis, 2007; Brown, 2004; Fomby & Cherlin, 2007; Magnuson & Berger, 2009; Manning & Lamb, 2003). Yet this literature needs to be expanded to include the sibling complexity that characterizes many children's family lives (Cancian, Meyer, & Cook, 2011).

Measures of family structure capture only parent-child relationships. This approach implicitly assumes that parents are the most salient feature of the family environment, channeling resources such as time and money to children, which in turn shapes their development and well-being (Kalil & DeLeire, 2004). …

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