As Mother’s Day 2020 fast approaches, the coronavirus pandemic—coupled with ongoing demographic trends—is making family life even more complicated for Americans. Millions of families are at increased risk of falling into poverty due to pandemic-related job losses, and social distancing protocols are separating some children from their parents who live in a different household.
American parents and children are more likely than ever before to live in separate households: More than one in three U.S. children under age 18 (36%) does not live with both biological parents, according to research supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)1
During coronavirus stay-at-home orders, some noncustodial parents have found seeing their children complicated, risky, or even impossible. Not living under the same roof also makes it harder for parents to invest time and money in their offspring, putting more children at risk of growing up poor, says Alicia VanOrman, senior research associate at Population Reference Bureau (PRB).
Economically disadvantaged Americans are more likely to have complex family ties spanning multiple households; they are also bearing the brunt of the coronavirus health effects and economic hardships, she says.
“Working-poor parents are most at risk of losing their jobs, are more vulnerable to contracting the disease at work or on their commutes, are less likely to have health insurance, and often have limited savings to cushion the economic toll,” says Mark Mather, PRB associate vice president of U.S. Programs.
NICHD-supported family scholars recently took a close look at the ways family life has become more complex, unstable, and unequal over the past decade, reporting their findings in the Journal of Marriage and Family. They identified seven interrelated trends.
1. Americans Are Retreating From Marriage
“More of the population of the United States is currently unmarried than ever before,” report Benjamin Karney and Thomas Bradbury of the University of California, Los Angeles.2 In 2019, about 53% of all U.S. adults ages 18 and older were currently married, compared with 70% in 1970.3
Driving this decline is more young adults delaying marriage to older ages, more couples cohabiting before or instead of marrying, couples still divorcing at relatively high rates, and fewer adults remarrying following a divorce or the death of a spouse, the researchers report.
Pamela Smock of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and Christine Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison point to a “marriage divide” by education level and race and ethnicity.4 In 2019, 41% of women without a high school diploma were currently married compared with 47% of those with high school diplomas or some college and 62% of those with a bachelor’s degree or more.5 In the early 1970s among women in their early 40s, over 90% of both non-Hispanic black and white women had ever married; by 2019 fewer than two-thirds of black women had ever married compared with 87% of white women.6
2. Debt, Low Wages, Uncertain Employment Have Become Barriers to Marriage
Surveys show that Americans now “appear to tie marriage ‘readiness’ to having comfortable income, little or no debt, and a secure job,” Smock and Schwartz report. “Marriage has come to be seen as a luxury good, a step to be taken after one has achieved a comfortable level of economic stability.”
“Those markers of economic stability have become less available to those without college degrees as the number of well-paid, skilled manufacturing jobs has declined.”
Another barrier to marriage is high incarceration levels, which affects the availability of male partners and the income-earning prospects of those released, they suggest.
3. Cohabitation, Now Common, Is Less Likely to Be a Pathway to Marriage for Lower-Income Americans
Living together instead of marrying has become the norm: Among women ages 25 to 29, nearly half (49%) had ever cohabited in 1995, “rising to a striking 73% in 2011 to 2013,” report Smock and Schwartz.7
Cohabiting relationships tend to be short: Most marry or dissolve their partnership within two or three years, with evidence of higher levels of breakups in recent years, they say. Numerous studies suggest that cohabitation has become less of a stepping stone to marriage, particularly for economically disadvantaged women, who are less likely to transition to marriage than college-educated women, according to Smock and Schwartz.8 Instead “serial cohabitation—cohabiting more than once—has been rising and is more widespread among the less educated.”9
4. More Children Are Being Born to Unmarried Parents, Particularly Cohabiting Couples
The share of children born to unmarried parents has doubled since the 1980s, rising from 21% in 1980-1984 to 43% in 2009-2013.10
Smock and Schwartz point to a “decoupling of marriage and childbearing”: Births to cohabiting couples (whose relationships tend to be less stable than those of married couples) represented 26% of all U.S. births in 2010-2014 and accounted for nearly all the recent increase in nonmarital births.11
Nonmarital births are more prevalent among mothers with lower education levels: In 2009-2013, 68% of births to mothers with less than a high school diploma were to unmarried mothers, compared with 11% for mothers with a college degree, they report.12
They also noted differences by race and ethnicity: In 2016, the share of nonmarital births among black women was 70%, compared with 53% for Latinas and 29% among white women.13
5. Divorce Rates Remain High, Despite Declines
Recent estimates suggest that divorce continues to be “financially devastating” for mothers and children, report R. Kelly Raley of the University of Texas at Austin and Megan Sweeney of the University of California, Los Angeles.14
U.S. divorce rates are among the world’s highest, although they have declined from their peak in 1980, according to the researchers. Divorce rates have dropped since the 1990s for couples in their 20s and 30s, which suggests that only the most committed couples marry. Divorce rates “increased dramatically” among those ages 50 and older, possibly a sign of the instability of second marriages.
Smock and Schwartz identify stark differences in marital stability by education level and by race and ethnicity.15 Women with at least a bachelor’s degree have a much higher probability of their marriage lasting 20 years than women with a high school diploma (78% versus 41%). Men with bachelor’s degrees are more likely than men with high school diplomas to reach the 20-year mark (65% versus 47%). 16
Black women have the highest risk of divorcing or separating within 20 years of marriage (63%), followed by Latinas, non-Hispanic white women, and Asian American women (47%, 46%, and 31% respectively). These differences likely reflect variations in education and income levels, they say.
6. More Parents Have Children With Multiple Partners
Having children with more than one partner—called multi-partner fertility by family researchers—is related to the rise of unmarried childbearing and unstable relationships. These parents tend to be the most disadvantaged U.S. adults; typically, they had their first child at a young age, usually outside of marriage. While many parents create complex households that include children who are “hers, his, and/or ours,” others never reside with the other biological parent of their children.
Smock and Schwartz point to a “marked increase” in multi-partner fertility with estimated levels ranging from 14% to 25% of all parents, depending on the data used and the age range studied. Among cohabiting U.S. couples with children, a 2019 study estimates that 44% of households had at least one adult who had a child with another partner.17
The greater prevalence of multi-partner fertility among people with lower levels of education and income may reinforce and magnify the instability already found among unmarried couples with children.18 Parents’ time and money are spread across households, potentially increasing inequality and exacerbating poverty.
7. A Large Share of Children Experience Complex Living Arrangements
As more parents split up and form relationships with new partners, a growing share of children experience unstable living arrangements. They may move from families with two biological parents (either married or cohabiting) to families with a single parent, a cohabiting parent, or a step-parent (either married or cohabiting).
Smock and Schwartz report that only three in five children under age 18 (60%) live with both biological parents in a married family household (see table).18 In 2019, about 4% of children lived in a cohabiting family with both their biological parents, 9% in a step-parent family (either married or cohabiting), 22% in a single-parent family (mainly headed by their mothers), and the remainder in other arrangements, such as with grandparents.
TABLE. Many Children Under Age 18 Do Not Live With Both Biological Parents
|Living Arrangements for Children Under Age 18||Percent Distribution|
|Both biological parents, married||60%|
|Both biological parents, cohabiting||4%|
|Step-parent (married or cohabiting)||9%|
|Other (such as grandparents)||4%|
Note: Numbers do not add to 100 because of rounding.
Source: Krista K. Payne, Children’s Family Structure, 2019 (Bowling Green, OH: National Center for Family and Marriage Research, Bowling Green State University, 2019), https://doi.org/10.25035/ncfmr/fp-19-25.
About half of children with noncollege-educated parents are in complex families (a single-parent family, a cohabiting or married step-parent family, or a family with half-siblings or step-siblings) compared with one in five children with a college-educated parent.20
“Economics and family structure play out in a way that disadvantages children with less-privileged backgrounds and under-represented minorities,” argue Smock and Schwartz. They point to children living with both of their biological parents: Among those in married families, 53% had at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree compared with 15% of children in cohabiting families.21
Trends Lead to Concerns About Effects on Health, Child Poverty, and Child Development
Marriage and divorce in the United States are “stratified and stratifying institutions” that widen existing social inequalities, assert Raley and Sweeney. After surveying family patterns over the past decade, they conclude that family complexity “is here to stay.” Family scholars raise several concerns related to these trends:
- Health and well-being: On average, research links marriage to many benefitsfor children and adults, including higher income, better health, and longer life expectancy. Some—but not all—of these differences are explained by who marries: Studies show that healthier and wealthier people are more likely to marry and remain married, and also that married people are more likely to enjoy health-promoting resources such as shared income and greater social support, report Debra Umberson of the University of Texas at Austin and Mieke Beth Thomeer of the University of Alabama at Birmingham.22
- Child development: Extensive research “makes clear that the more family structure transitions children face, the lower their level of well-being,” reflected in increased depression, anxiety, aggression, rule breaking, and temper outbursts, report Raley and Sweeney.23
- Child poverty: Research shows that children raised outside of stable, two-biological-parent families face greater odds of being poor and of receiving lower-quality parenting—which can hinder their healthy development and future life chances, report Marianne Cooper of Stanford University and Allison J. Pugh of the University of Virginia.24 “Family structure not only reflects societal inequities but exacerbates them,” they suggest.
The findings family scholars reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family document what Sara McLanahan of Princeton University has called the “diverging destinies” that U.S. children face.
That is, children with highly educated mothers are more likely to grow up in stable households with married parents and economic resources, while children with less-educated mothers tend to spend more of their childhoods in unstable settings with unmarried parents and limited economic resources.
Read more from family scholars about the policy implications of complex families, trends in same-sex marriages, immigrant families, and more.
This article was produced under a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The researchers at the following NICHD-funded Population Dynamics Research Centers were highlighted in this article: Benjamin Karney, Thomas Bradbury, and Megan Sweeney of the University of California, Los Angeles; Sarah McLanahan of Princeton University; Krista Payne of Bowling Green State University; Pamela Smock of the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; Christine Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; R. Kelly Raley and Debra Umberson of the University of Texas at Austin. Kristi Williams of Ohio State University edited the February 2020 issue of the Journal of Marriage and the Family.