University of Wisconsin–Madison
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Family complexity in America

Dramatic changes in family life have occurred in the United States over the past half century. Marriage has become less central to the life course, as individuals marry at older ages (or not at all) and face a high likelihood of divorce. Cohabitation typically precedes marriage today, and more than two-fifths of all births now occur outside of marriage. Taken together, these changes have led to an increase in family complexity and instability, as the majority of U.S. children do not spend their entire childhood living with their two biological parents. Particularly notable is an increase in multiple-partner fertility, or the number of adults who (will) have biological children by more than one partner (with a corresponding increase in the number of children that have at least one half-sibling). These changes and trends in family life are important for understanding both the causes and consequences of poverty and likely have implications for broader trends in inequality. As the reach and effects of many antipoverty policies vary with family structure, changes in family life pose challenges to the effective design and operation of a host of social programs and policies.


Family & Partnering, Family Structure, Multiple-Partner Fertility