Child & Family Well-Being

Major demographic and social trends since the mid-1960s and the ways they have affected children and families and poverty have always been central areas of IRP research. In particular, much analysis has focused on three important spheres: (1) the relationship between family complexity and poverty, (2) the role of unwed fathers in families, and (3) the causes and consequences of child maltreatment.

One of the most important demographic changes in American families 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.

Following below are examples of IRP's most recent child and family well-being-related research initiatives, conferences, and seminars, with links to related resources, including publications, slide presentations, and videos. The materials span a broad range of topics from the perspective of various academic disciplines, practitioners, and policymakers who all seek to promote the well-being of children and families.

Extramural Research Funding for 2017–2018: Policies and Programs to Reduce Child Poverty and Its Effects

The Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) seeks to fund research examining policies and programs with the potential to reduce child poverty and/or its effects, a key area of interest identified by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Proposals are invited from U.S. Ph.D.-holding poverty scholars at all career stages, from postdoctoral fellows to senior faculty, and from all disciplines. IRP anticipates funding four to eight projects, with awards ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 each. The proposal deadline is 5:00 p.m. CDT, March 31, 2017.

Focal Theme

Children's life chances are constrained by their parents' social and economic fortunes. Poverty is a common experience for children in the United States. Whereas about one in five children is poor in any given year, roughly one in three will spend at least one year of their childhood living in a poor household. Young children, children of single mothers, children of immigrants, and children of color are disproportionately likely to experience poverty, which often has adverse consequences throughout the life course.

Read the request for proposals.

Center on Child Welfare Policy and Practice

The Center on Child Welfare Policy and Practice (CCWPP) is a research center at UW–Madison that promotes child and family well-being through interdisciplinary research and enhanced collaboration and communication among the researchers, policymakers, and practitioners seeking best practices in preventing child maltreatment.

The Center is a joint initiative of the School of Social Work (SSW) and the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) to provide a home base for longstanding efforts on behalf of vulnerable children in Wisconsin and the Midwest and the infrastructure needed to expand that work.

Taking the lead in establishing the Center were Kristen Shook Slack, Professor and Director of the School of Social Work, and Jennifer Noyes, IRP Researcher and Associate Director of Programs and Management, both of whom have affiliations with SSW and IRP and bring a wealth of expertise in child welfare research and administration.

The Center's objectives are to conduct and disseminate rigorous research, ensure a state-of-the-art academic curriculum, and enhance provision of technical assistance.

Center researchers identify "what works" in child abuse and neglect prevention and intervention and share that empirical evidence with individuals and groups vested in reducing the incidence of child maltreatment and improving the circumstances of children and families served by child welfare systems.

To learn more about the CCWPP and read the latest child- and family well-being-related news from IRP and SSW, see the CCWPP web site.

Research Project: Research on Family Complexity, Poverty, and Public Policy

Of all the ways in which family life in the United States has changed over the past 50 years, an increase in family complexity is one of the most important demographic shifts. High rates of cohabitation, nonmarital childbearing, divorce, and repartnering present challenges for policymakers as well as for families, especially children. Particularly notable is an increase in multi-partner fertility, the proportion of adults who have biological children by more than one partner.

As a result of these trends and challenges, researchers at IRP invited extramural research proposals in early 2012 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 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.

Taking the lead on the Family Complexity project are IRP Affiliates Marcia (Marcy) Carlson, 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 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.

Read the proposal abstracts of the IRP Emerging Scholar Grant Awardees.

Conference on Child Health and Well-Being

IRP convened a conference in October 2010 with 40 eminent researchers to discuss aspects of child health and well-being, considering both emerging findings that might be used to guide policy and areas in need of further research. Conference presentations included an overview of health disparities among children; analysis of how socioeconomic status gets "under the skin" (for example, how poverty might affect brain functioning and stress biomarkers); examination of childhood antecedents of adult health; and assessment of policy impacts on childhood health.

The conference was organized by Pamela Herd, Associate Professor of Public Affairs and Sociology and Codirector of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study; Katherine Magnuson, Associate Professor of Social Work and IRP Associate Director of Research and Training; and Barbara Wolfe, Professor of Economics, Public Affairs, and Population Health Sciences.

The final session focused specifically on the National Institutes of Health National Children's Study and how it can be used to study child health and poverty. The conference included panelists who discussed complex interdisciplinary issues from both narrow and broad points of view.

See the conference agenda and view select conference slide presentations.

Research on Child Support

Because of the intimate link of child support to poverty and welfare, researchers associated with IRP have played a primary role in data collection, research, and policy evaluation since the mid-1970s. This includes a major demonstration project with ongoing national and state policy implications, the Child Support Demonstration Evaluation (CSDE).

Under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, states were given greater flexibility in determining how to distribute child support paid on behalf of children whose mothers were receiving welfare payments. The Wisconsin approach was unique. Wisconsin alone allowed all child support paid by noncustodial parents to pass through to the family and disregarded such payments in calculating welfare benefits; most other states decided to retain all the child support paid to offset welfare payments. This policy was put in place in 1997, as part of the original Wisconsin Works (W-2) program.

The Wisconsin policy was the subject of a full evaluation from its inception. The Child Support Demonstration Evaluation (CSDE), conducted by the Institute for Research on Poverty, included several primary components: a statewide random assignment experimental evaluation; quantitative nonexperimental evaluations using Wisconsin and national data on child support policies; analyses of policy implementation and monitoring; and qualitative explorations of family dynamics and responses to the new state policies. The results of all these analyses are summarized here.

For more information about and resources related to IRP’s child support research.

Focus Articles, Fast Focus Research Briefs, Discussion Papers, and Videos of Seminars

What follows below are links to select recent IRP publications on topics related to child and family well-being. Search the IRP Publications Database or see IRP's Publications Search Instructions and Tips to learn how to conduct a search of all IRP publications by topic, date, author, etcetera.


Focus 28(2): The Dynamics of Disconnection for Low-Income Mothers
P. Loprest and A. Nichols

Focus 27(2): How Well Do We Understand Achievement Gaps?
E. A. Hanushek

Focus 27(2): Revisiting an Old Question: How Much Does Parental Income Affect Child Outcomes?
S. E. Mayer

Focus 27(1): The Legacy of Alfred Kahn: Comparative Social Policy and Child Well-Being
J. Waldfogel

Focus 26(2): Family Structure, Childbearing, and Parental Employment: Implications for the Level and Trend in Poverty
M. Cancian and D. Reed

Focus 26(2): Enduring Influences of Childhood Poverty
K. Magnuson and E. Votruba-Drzal

Focus 26(2): The Role of Family Policies in Antipoverty Policy
J. Waldfogel

Focus 26(1): A Primer on U.S. Welfare Reform
R. Moffitt

Focus 26(1): Improving Educational Outcomes for Poor Children
B. A. Jacob and J. Ludwig

Fast Focus

Fast Focus No. 11-2011: Stepparents and Half-Siblings: Family Complexity from a Child’s Perspective
M. Cancian, D. R. Meyer, and S. T. Cook

In this issue of Fast Focus, Maria Cancian, Daniel R. Meyer, and Steven T. Cook summarize findings published in the journal Demography, which document the incidence and evolution of family complexity from the perspective of children. Following a cohort of firstborn children whose mothers were not married at the time of their birth, the authors consider family structure changes over the first 10 years of the child's life—considering both full and half-siblings who are coresidential or who live in another household. They find that 60 percent of firstborn children of unmarried mothers have at least one half-sibling by age 10. Complex family structures are more likely for children of parents who are younger or who have low earnings and for those in larger urban areas. Children who have half-siblings on their mother's side are also more likely to have half-siblings on their father's side, and vice versa, contributing to very complex family structures—and potential child support arrangements—for some children.

Fast Focus No. 8-2010: Fighting Child Poverty in the United States and United Kingdom: An Update
T. M. Smeeding and J. Waldfogel

Timothy Smeeding and Jane Waldfogel published an article in 2009 in the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management that showed how child poverty trends in the United States and United Kingdom had diverged over the past decade, during which the United Kingdom pursued an ambitious war on child poverty. Now there are new data for the two countries, which reveal that the differences are even starker than before. This Fast Focus brief is designed to update their findings in the context of the ongoing recession as well as the change in government in the United Kingdom and subsequent ongoing changes in public policy toward poor children. Ten years into the U.K. initiative to halve child poverty in 10 years, if poverty is measured in absolute terms as we do in the U.S., they have more than achieved their interim goal, because of both fiscal effort and persistence, as Jane Waldfogel documents in her book Britain’s War on Poverty (published by Russell Sage Foundation in 2010). The authors assert that a more concerted national effort will be needed if the United States is to achieve anything like the successes of the United Kingdom in reducing its high child poverty rates.

Discussion Papers

Discussion Paper No. 1385-10: The Effect of Family Income on Risk of Child Maltreatment
M. Cancian, K. S. Slack, and M. Y. Yang

Over six million children were reported to the child welfare system as being at risk of child abuse or neglect in the United States in 2008. Researchers and policymakers have long recognized that children living in families with limited economic resources are at higher risk for maltreatment than children from higher socioeconomic strata, but the causal effect of income on maltreatment risk is unknown. Because many factors, for example, poor parental mental health, are known to increase the probability both of poverty and child maltreatment, teasing out the causal role of income can be challenging. Using newly available data, the authors exploit a random assignment experiment that led to exogenous differences in family income to measure the effect of income on the risk of maltreatment reported to the child welfare system. The authors find consistent evidence of a causal effect.

Discussion Paper No. 1329-07: The Stability of Shared Child Physical Placements in Recent Cohorts of Divorced Wisconsin Families
L. M. Berger, P. Brown, E. Joung, M. S. Melli, and L. Wimer

This paper describes the living arrangements of children in Wisconsin families with sole mother and shared child physical placements following parental divorce and explores the stability of these arrangements during (approximately) the next three years. Contrary to prior research in this area, results provide little evidence that children in shared placement spend less time in their father’s care about three years after a divorce than they did at the time of the divorce. In contrast, children with sole mother placement appear to progressively spend less time in their father’s care in the years following a divorce, and a considerable proportion of these children spend little or no time in their father’s care about three years after divorce.

Discussion Paper No. 1320-07: Investment in Child Quality over Marital States
M. Brown, C. J. Flinn

Policies governing divorce and parenting, such as child support orders and enforcement, child custody regulations, and marital dissolution requirements, can have a large impact on the welfare of parents and children. Recent research has produced evidence on the responses of divorce rates to unilateral divorce laws and child support enforcement. In this paper the authors argue that in order to assess the child welfare impact of family policies, one must consider their influence on parents' investments in their children as well as the stability of the marginal marriage. Further, the authors expect that changes in the regulatory environment induce changes in the distribution of resources within both intact and divided families.

The authors develop a continuous time model of parents' marital status choices and investments in children, with the main goal being the determination of how policies toward divorce influence outcomes for children. Estimates are derived for model parameters of interest using the method of simulated moments, and simulations based on the model explore the effects of changes in custody allocations and child support standards on outcomes for children of married and divorced parents. The authors find that, while small changes in children’s academic attainment are induced by significant shifts in custody and support, the major effects of these policies in both intact and divided households are on the distribution of welfare between parents. In addition, children’s attainments are not necessarily best served by the divorce-minimizing policy.

Discussion Paper No. 1300-05: Multiple-Partner Fertility: Incidence and Implications for Child Support Policy
D. R. Meyer, M. Cancian, and S. T. Cook

Multiple-partner fertility might not be a significant policy issue if the number of children affected was fairly small. However, the authors show here that family complexity resulting from multiple-partner fertility is quite common, and has important implications for understanding child support outcomes and for designing and evaluating welfare and family policy. Using a unique set of merged administrative data, this paper provides the first comprehensive documentation of levels of family complexity among a broad sample of welfare recipients. The authors examine the extent to which complexity is associated with systematically different child support outcomes and outline the implications of family complexity for policy.

Discussion Paper No. 1305-05: The Impact of Family Income on Child Achievement
G. Dahl and L. Lochner

Understanding the consequences of growing up poor for a child's well-being is an important research question, but one that is difficult to answer due to the potential endogeneity of family income. Past estimates of the effect of family income on child development have often been plagued by omitted variable bias and measurement error. In this paper, the authors use a fixed effect instrumental variables strategy to estimate the causal effect of income on children's math and reading achievement. Their primary source of identification comes from the large, non-linear changes in the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) over the last two decades.

The largest of these changes increased family income by as much as 20 percent, or approximately $2,100. Using a panel of over 6,000 children matched to their mothers from National Longitudinal Survey of Youth datasets allows us to address problems associated with unobserved heterogeneity and endogenous transitory income shocks as well as measurement error in income. The study's baseline estimates imply that a $1,000 increase in income raises math test scores by 2.1 percent and reading test scores by 3.6 percent of a standard deviation. The results are even stronger when looking at children from disadvantaged families who are affected most by the large changes in the EITC, and are robust to a variety of alternative specifications.

Video of Select Seminars

IRP New Perspectives in Social Policy Seminar: A Biology of Misfortune: How Social Stratification, Sensitivity, and Stress Diminish Early Health and Development
W. Thomas Boyce

Presented on February 8, 2012
W. Thomas Boyce is Sunny Hill Health Center-BC Leadership Chair in Child Development in the Human Early Learning Partnership and the Center for Community Child Health Research, Co-Director of Child and Family Research Institute's (CFRI) Experience-Based Brain and Biological Development Program, Scientist Level 3, CFRI, and Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies and Pediatrics, University of British Columbia.

PowerPoint Presentation (in PDF format) | Flash Video of Lecture (best viewed with a high speed Internet connection)