Family Complexity, Poverty, and Public Policy

Please note: This page describes activities that are part of a research project that began in 2011 and runs through 2013. Visitors may wish to bookmark this page for future reference, as further detail will be provided as it becomes available.

IRP launched a major research project in fall 2011 designed to enhance understanding of the relationship of family complexity to poverty and public policy. The project extends over a three-year period and encompasses a seminar series, webinar, extramural small grants program for emerging scholars, mentoring workshop, national research and policy conference and volume, and policy and practice briefs.

Taking the lead on the Family Complexity project are IRP affiliates Marcia 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.

Why Study 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, or 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. IRP's three-year Family Complexity research agenda that explores these trends and their policy implications is outlined below.

Research Agenda: Family Complexity, Poverty, and Public Policy

Each set of activities in IRP's Family Complexity, Poverty, and Public Policy research agenda is designed to be multidisciplinary, to foster interaction and collaboration among affiliates and other established and emerging scholars within the UW–Madison and across the nation, and to enhance productive interchange among researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The three-year agenda comprises the activities described below.

Seminar Series

The first activity in IRP's three-year research agenda is a Family Complexity, Poverty, and Public Policy seminar series in 2012–2013 that explores how family complexity is linked to poverty, inequality, and public policies designed to serve low-income families. The series serves to concentrate interest and create opportunities for exchange across the broad range of disciplines of affiliates and staff. It also engages key poverty researchers from other institutions. IRP invited a group of top scholars working in this area to present in our year-long series, whose work includes research on family formation and dissolution, nonmarital fertility, the efficacy of child welfare interventions, and the difficulties of designing social policy in light of changing family dynamics. Seminar presenters will also consider the challenges in designing and evaluating public policies aimed at shaping family behavior.


Second on IRP's Family Complexity agenda is a webinar on “The Implications of Complex Families for Poverty Policy,” presented by Maria Cancian and Daniel R. Meyer, on Wednesday, September 19, from 1:00 to 2:00 PM (Central Time). Registration instructions will be available here in late August.

Emerging Scholars Extramural Small Grants Program

A third element in IRP's Family Complexity agenda seeds new research in this area while targeting emerging social science scholars. Meet the Emerging Scholars.

In early 2012, IRP invited extramural research proposals from recent Ph.D. recipients (within the past eight years) 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?

Abstracts of Top Five Proposals

Mentoring Meeting and Workshop

The extramural small grants program described above includes mentoring components. The first mentoring activity is a meeting with Family Complexity codirectors Professors Carlson and Meyer, about one year into grantees' research, at which the emerging scholars will present a draft of their paper. The feedback they receive will help them hone their paper for a workshop later that year.

Near the completion of their work, the emerging scholars will be invited to attend a half-day workshop to present their research to selected mentors. This workshop will precede the major research conference hosted by IRP in July 2013, described below.

National Research and Policy Conference

Another major component of IRP's Family Complexity agenda was a multidisciplinary research and policy conference, which took place on July 11 and 12, 2013. IRP co-organized the event with the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. The first day of the conference focused on what is known, incorporating information on the ways complexity is linked to poverty and inequality. Commissioned papers were presented by experts in demography, economics, sociology, psychology, family studies, and social work. The three sets of papers:

  • provided broad overviews about family complexity, including describing the nature of family patterns and roles that have increased complexity over the past half-century; examined the link between poverty/inequality and family change; and explored the prevalence of children's experiences with various aspects of family complexity;
  • considered particular domains of complexity that are central to contemporary family life, including fertility (especially with multiple partners); union formation/dissolution (both marriage and cohabitation) and parental roles; grandparents' roles in childrearing; and incarceration as linked to family roles and relationships; and
  • focused on how complexity plays out within families and affects family functioning/processes from the perspective of children, fathers, and mothers.

The second day of the conference focused on the relationship between family complexity and social policies affecting families with children. Primary goals for this day were to identify areas in which current complexity is creating difficulties or opportunities for policies and programs, to brainstorm about and discuss potential policy changes that might be considered, and to identify areas in which additional research would be useful.

Annals cover July 2014

Conference Volume

A special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 654(1): Family Complexity, Poverty, and Public Policy, comprising the commissioned papers presented at conference were published in July 2014.

Policy and Practice Brief

The inaugural issue of IRP's new series Focus on Policy, "Family Change: It's Complicated," summarizes recent research on the dramatic changes in the American family over the last half century.

Related IRP Publications

What follows below are links to select recent IRP publications on topics related to family complexity, poverty, and policy. 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 Articles | Fast Focus | Discussion Papers | Additional IRP Resources

Focus Articles

Focus 28(1), Spring-Summer 2011: Disadvantaged Fathers and Their Families, Timothy M. Smeeding, Irwin Garfinkel, and Ronald B. Mincy

Focus 26(2), Fall 2009: Family Structure, Childbearing, and Parental Employment: Implications for the Level and Trend in Poverty, M. Cancian and D. Reed

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

Focus 25(2), Fall-Winter 2007–08: Effects of Welfare and Antipoverty Programs on Participants' Children, Greg J. Duncan, Lisa Gennetian, and Pamela Morris

Focus 25(1), Spring-Summer 2007: Meeting Children's Needs When Parents Work, Jane Waldfogel

Focus 24(3), Fall-Winter 2006: After Welfare Reform: You Choose Your Child Over the Job, Lisa Dodson

Fast Focus

Fast Focus No. 12-2011: American Poverty and Inequality: Key Trends and Future Research Directions, Timothy Smeeding and Colleagues

This issue of Fast Focus summarizes the research agenda of the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison under a new, five-year national Poverty Research Center grant from the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In this brief, IRP researchers assess poverty and inequality in the United States. They examine key trends over the decades since the War on Poverty was launched in the 1960s, review past research, and look ahead to how poverty may continue to change and require new approaches to mitigate its effects on individuals and families. They evaluate the policies and programs devised to improve opportunities for the disadvantaged and to help them on the path to self-sufficiency. Finally, they look ahead to project what researchers, policymakers, and practitioners will need to know to improve the life chances of all Americans and what research evidence is needed to inform and improve antipoverty efforts.

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. 9-2011: Unmarried Parents in College: Pathways to Success, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Kia Sorensen

This issue of Fast Focus is based on an article published by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Kia Sorensen in the fall 2010 issue of The Future of Children (Vol. 20, No. 2; used here with permission), which focuses on “fragile families,” defined as families in which the parents were unmarried when the child was born. The authors examine unmarried parents in college at a time when postsecondary education and training have become increasingly important to workers' success in the U.S. labor market and therefore to families' economic security. Noting that access to higher education has dramatically expanded in the past several decades, Goldrick-Rab and Sorensen focus on how unmarried parents fare once they enter college. They argue that, contrary to the expectation that college access consistently promotes family stability and economic security, deficiencies in current policy lead to adverse consequences for some families headed by unmarried parents. And although rates of college attendance have substantially increased among unmarried parents, their college completion rates are low. The authors examine their barriers to success, and the effects of their studies on family life, describing empirically tested supports that have helped more unmarried parenting students attain a degree and thus find better employment at higher wages.

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.

Fast Focus No. 6-2010: Promising Antipoverty Strategies for Families, Maria Cancian, Daniel R. Meyer, and Deborah Reed

American families are becoming increasingly diverse, dynamic, and dependent on labor market earnings to avoid poverty and economic distress. Children are less likely to live in families with both parents and more likely to rely on their mother's earnings to avoid poverty. The recession has highlighted the urgent need for antipoverty programs supporting families, but the authors emphasize that the needs the programs address are longstanding, not only cyclical, and therefore require a sustained response. In this brief, the authors review changes in family structure, the relationship between family structure and employment, and early evidence on differential impacts of the recession on families, and they explore the implications of these changes for policy. They argue that supporting resident parents' efforts to balance work and family responsibilities and supporting and enforcing nonresident parents' contributions to their children will help reduce poverty and economic difficulties.

Fast Focus No. 5-2010: Early Findings from New York City's Conditional Cash Transfer Program, James A. Riccio

In 2007, New York City's Center for Economic Opportunity launched Opportunity NYC: Family Rewards, an experimental, privately funded, conditional cash transfer (CCT) program to help families break the cycle of poverty. CCT programs offer cash assistance to reduce immediate hardship, but condition these transfers on families' efforts to build up their "human capital," often by developing the education and skills that may reduce their poverty over the longer term. Family Rewards is the first comprehensive CCT program in a developed country.

Aimed at low-income families in six of New York City's highest-poverty communities, Family Rewards ties cash rewards to prespecified activities and outcomes in children's education, families' preventive health care, and parents' employment. The three-year program is being operated by Seedco—a private, nonprofit intermediary organization—in partnership with six community-based organizations. It is being evaluated by MDRC through a randomized control trial involving approximately 4,800 families and 11,000 children, half of whom can receive the cash incentives if they meet the required conditions, and half who have been assigned to a control group that cannot receive the incentives. This brief summarizes an MDRC report on initial findings during the program's early operating period.

Discussion Papers

Discussion Paper No. 1366-09: Does Debt Discourage Employment and Payment of Child Support? Evidence from a Natural Experiment, Maria Cancian, Carolyn Heinrich, and Yiyoon Chung

Despite substantial technological improvements to the child support enforcement program, many single parents do not receive child support. Particularly for families whose incomes are below the poverty level, child support is frequently a vital financial resource. The federal government's primary motivation for establishing the federal Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program was to recover the costs associated with public assistance payments to poor single-parent families by collecting payments from the noncustodial parents. In this study, we use variation in the birthing costs over time and across counties in Wisconsin to identify the effect of child support debt on nonresident fathers' child support payments and formal earnings. Our results suggest that higher arrears, in themselves, substantially reduce both child support payments and formal earnings for the fathers and families that already likely struggle in securing steady employment and coping with economic disadvantage, a serious unintended consequence of child support policy.

Discussion Paper No. 1365-09: Stepping Stone or Dead End? The Effect of the EITC on Earnings Growth, Molly Dahl, Thomas DeLeire, and Jonathan Schwabish

While many studies have found that the EITC increases the employment rates of single mothers, no study to date has examined whether the jobs taken by single mothers as a result of the EITC incentives are "dead-end" jobs or jobs that have the potential for earnings growth. Using a panel of administrative earnings data linked to nationally representative survey data, we find no evidence that the EITC expansions between 1994 and 1996 induced single mothers to take "dead-end" jobs. If anything, the increase in earnings growth during the mid-to-late 1990s for single mothers who were particularly affected by the EITC expansion was higher than it was for other similar women. The EITC encourages work among single mothers, and that work continues to pay off through future increases in earnings.

Discussion Paper No. 1364-09: Changing Poverty and Changing Antipoverty Policies, Maria Cancian and Sheldon Danziger
(Also published as introduction to conference volume, Changing Poverty, Changing Policies)

Since the early 1970s, dramatic changes in the economy, demographic composition of the population, and in public policies have combined to reduce the antipoverty effects of economic growth. Because economic growth is now necessary, but not sufficient, to significantly reduce poverty, antipoverty policies must be expanded and reformed, especially in the aftermath of the severe recession that began in late 2007.

The authors review three cross-cutting factors that shape the extent and nature of poverty and prospects for reducing poverty: the changing role of race and ethnicity in the labor market and society; changing gender roles that influence both trends in labor force participation of women and patterns of family formation and childbearing; and the recent history of social welfare programs and policies. They conclude by recommending a set of high priority antipoverty policies that are consistent with current trends in work effort, patterns of family formation, and continuing changes in how the globalized economy affects the employment and earnings prospects of less-educated workers. These policies focus on making work pay, helping parents balance work and family responsibilities, and raising the educational attainment of disadvantaged children. The authors also briefly summarize the other chapters in the forthcoming Changing Poverty volume.

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.

Additional IRP Resources

IRP Conference Volume: "Young Disadvantaged Men: Fathers, Families, Poverty, and Policy"
Special issue of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 635 (May 2011). Special Editors: Timothy M. Smeeding, Irwin Garfinkel, and Ronald B. Mincy

This special issue of The Annals introduces the major themes associated with young disadvantaged men, including low educational achievement, joblessness, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and incarceration, that were introduced at an IRP working conference held in September 2009. By age 30, between 68 percent and 75 percent of young men with a high school degree or less are fathers (NLSY). Half of them are married when their first child is born and far fewer continue their education post-high school. This volume provides practical, policy-driven strategies to address the national epidemic of disadvantaged young fathers, focusing on four major forces that help shape social and economic outcomes for young men who are fathers and for their partners and children: employment and earnings prospects; multiple-partner fertility; incarceration; and finally public policy, especially as it is reflected in the income support system and the child support system.

IRP Conference Volume: Changing Poverty, Changing Policies (Russell Sage Foundation 2009)
Edited by Maria Cancian and Sheldon Danziger

Based on papers presented at a 2008 IRP conference, Changing Poverty, Changing Policies continues IRP's seminal book series on poverty policy and research. Chapter authors are: Maria Cancian and Sheldon Danziger; Daniel R. Meyer and Geoffrey L. Wallace; Rebecca M. Blank; Maria Cancian and Deborah Reed; Steven Raphael and Eugene Smolensky; Markus Jäntti; John Karl Scholz, Robert Moffitt, and Benjamin Cowan; Jane Waldfogel; Brian A. Jacob and Jens Ludwig; Harry J. Holzer; Katherine Swartz; Mary Jo Bane; Robert Haveman.

In Changing Poverty, Changing Policies leading antipoverty scholars review a wide range of public policy reforms aimed at increasing the employment and earnings of low-income individuals, helping parents better balance their work and family obligations, and raising the educational attainment and skills of the next generation. The authors' focus on pragmatic measures that have real possibilities of being implemented in the United States not only provides vital knowledge about what works but real hope for change.

2010 Conference on Child Health and Well-Being

This conference convened between 30 and 40 researchers at the University of Wisconsin in October 2010 to discuss the following 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: (1) overview of health disparities among children, (2) how SES gets 'under the skin' (e.g. brain functioning and stress biomarkers), (3) childhood antecedents of adult health, (4) policy impacts on childhood health. The final session of the conference focused specifically on the National Children's Study and how it can be used to study child health and poverty. The overall conference included panelists who discussed complex interdisciplinary issues from both narrow and broad points of view. Pamela Herd, Katherine Magnuson, and Barbara Wolfe were the conference organizers.

Research on Child Support

About half of all American children will spend part of their childhood living in single-parent, mostly single-mother, households. Single-parent households with minor children are the most economically vulnerable families, and government has come to play a major role in the way society ensures their 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.

To learn more about child support-related work carried out by IRP researchers and affiliates and to read related publications, visit the following sections of this website:

Child Support Publications by Topic

Child Support Demonstration Evaluation

Child Support Policy Research