Grants Awarded to Emerging Scholars to Study Family Complexity, Poverty, & Policy

April 20, 2012

Contact: Marcia (Marcy) Carlson,, (608) 262-1085
Daniel R. Meyer,, (608) 263-6335
Timothy M. Smeeding,, (608) 890-1317

MADISON—Family life in the United States has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. One of the most important demographic changes has been an increase in family complexity, owing to high rates of cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, divorce, and repartnering. Particularly notable is an increase in multi-partner fertility, the proportion of adults who have biological children by more than one partner.

These changes and trends in family life are important for understanding both the causes and consequences of poverty. As the reach and effects of many antipoverty policies vary with family structure, changes in family life pose challenges to the effective design of antipoverty programs and policies.

As a result of these trends and challenges, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) invited extramural research proposals that were responsive to one of the following two questions:

How do family change and increasing family complexity relate to poverty or inequality? How do family change and increasing family complexity create challenges for public policy, and what is the evidence that social policies increase (or attenuate) family complexity or its consequences?

The response to the call was great, with reviewers awarding $20,000 grants to each of the five top proposals, which were submitted by a multidisciplinary group of emerging scholars from across the United States.

The Emerging Scholars competition is part of a major research project designed to enhance understanding of the relationship of family complexity to poverty and public policy, which IRP launched in its role as a National Poverty Research Center supported by the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The project includes the extramural small grants program for emerging scholars, a mentoring workshop for these same scholars, a major conference and associated volume, and policy and practice briefs to share project findings.

Taking the lead on the Family Complexity project are IRP affiliates Marcia (Marcy) Carlson, Associate Professor of Sociology and affiliate of the Center for Demography and Ecology, and Daniel R. Meyer, Mary C. Jacoby Distinguished Professor of Social Work.

The following are the names and proposal abstracts of the IRP Emerging Scholar Grant Awardees:
Sharon Bzostek (Rutgers University), “Maternal Repartnering & Trajectories of Financial Well-Being Following a Nonmarital Birth.”

This proposal will use data from all five waves of the Fragile Families (FF) Study (birth to age 9) to examine how maternal repartnering (and union dissolution) is related to family economic well-being. Bzostek will extend the literature by using a number of outcome measures (including developing a Supplemental Poverty Measure using FF data), by utilizing more refined family types (to better get at complexity), and by considering potential reverse causality in how economic resources affect partnering behaviors.

Christine Percheski (Northwestern University) & Rachel Kimbro (Rice University), “The Great Recession’s Effects on Nonmarital and Multi-Partner Fertility.”

This proposal will provide new information about how macroeconomic conditions are related to fertility under different circumstances – within marriage, outside of marriage, and with new partners (i.e., multi-partnered fertility). While theories of fertility suggest that childbearing behavior is a function of economic resources, nonmarital fertility is often unintended (and hence not linked to economic factors). This proposal will use individual-level data from the 2006–2010 National Survey of Family Growth—linked with macro-level data on unemployment, poverty, and foreclosures—to examine whether/how economic conditions affect fertility among various sub-groups (by race/ethnicity, education, and union context) of key interest for poverty research.

Rebecca Ryan (Georgetown University), “Associations between Family Structure Change and Child Development: The Moderating Effects of Timing and Family Income.”

This proposal will use data from the mother-child files from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 to examine whether changes in family structure are related to children’s cognitive and behavioral trajectories, with a particular focus on the timing of family structure changes (i.e., at what stage of children’s development they occur) and whether the associations differ for children born into poor families (versus nonpoor families). While a long literature has explored the effects of family structure on child well-being, this proposal will provide a uniquely comprehensive analysis on differences in family structure effects by child age and family poverty status.

Laura Tach (University of Pennsylvania, starting fall 2012 at Cornell University), “Changes in Family Structure and Income Instability among American Families.”

This proposal will use 30 years of data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to examine how family structure changes are linked to income instability, and whether this association has changed over time. The SIPP data can be used to categorize greater levels of complexity than many other national data sets, including the presence of full, half, and step siblings. This proposal will be a nice complement to Bzostek’s proposal, and conjointly, these proposals will provide new insights from different perspectives and data sets on an important question about how family instability affects the economic resources available to children.

Kristin Turney (University of California-Irvine), “Incarceration, Family Instability, and the Intragenerational Transmission of Poverty.”

This proposal addresses an important yet understudied area of family complexity (incarceration, family change, and poverty) that is central to IRP’s agenda. Turney uses all five waves of the Fragile Families data with multiple analytic techniques to examine the broader consequences for families of paternal incarceration.