• Elizabeth Peters
  • Sara McLanahan

Leaders: Elizabeth Peters, Sara McLanahan

The continuing decline in prime-age employment interacts with ongoing changes in the structure and composition of low-income families. The relevant trends here include (a) declining marriage rates and increasing cohabitation, (b) increases in nonmarital births and multi-partner fertility, and (c) rising noncustodial parenthood (especially for fathers). These developments all work to weaken the “family safety net” for poor children. In a precarious labor market, a second parent provides backup in difficult times (e.g., extra income, childcare), thus reducing the risks of poverty. The family safety net is in this sense weakening just as the labor market is becoming more precarious. Moreover, because some programs (e.g., EITC) provide higher benefits for custodial parents, the rise of noncustodial parenting undermines the capacity of the formal safety net to step in as the family safety net weakens. These and related changes in family structure have prompted a spate of policy proposals, some involving safety net reforms that accommodate the new family forms (e.g., incentivizing noncustodial parents to comply with child-support orders), and others addressing the underlying institutional changes themselves (e.g., increasing the availability of long-acting reversible contraceptives). The charge of the Family RG is to evaluate these proposals and to better understand how the safety net is adapting to changes in family structure. The following projects are a sampling of the research underway within this RG.

A new round of Fragile Families data collection: Under the leadership of Sara McLanahan, a new initiative to update the Fragile Families Study is underway, with a focus on adding administrative records, metabolic and immune markers, and measures of methylation.

Income and the developing brain: Does income support for families affect the brain function and development of infants? A new experiment will reveal all.

Measuring family complexity in the AOS: Will the American Opportunity Study (AOS) capture the rise of ever more complicated family forms? By linking tax, census, and birth records, the AOS should be up to the task.

Family - CPI Research

Title Author Media
Overwork, Specialization, and Wealth Brian Aronson, Lisa A. Keister

Overwork, Specialization, and Wealth

Author: Brian Aronson, Lisa A. Keister
Publisher: Journal of Marriage and Family
Date: 07/2019

Objective: This study examines how overwork and traditional household specialization—defined as households with one dedicated female homemaker and one dedicated male breadwinner—are associated with wealth across socioeconomic strata.

Background: Although overwork and household specialization are clearly associated with income, less is known about how these behaviors affect household wealth. Household wealth is only moderately correlated with household income and is influenced by many factors that do not affect income, suggesting that overwork and specialization have different associations with wealth than with income. Moreover, because wealth is so unevenly distributed, overwork and specialization likely have different associations with wealth across socioeconomic strata.

Method: With data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, a nationally representative survey of households that includes an oversample of high‐wealth households, the authors estimate unconditional quantile regression models to investigate how overwork and household specialization are associated with household wealth across socioeconomic strata and over time.

Results: Overwork has the greatest absolute benefits at the top of the wealth distribution but the greatest relative benefits in lower portions of the wealth distribution. Specialization yields distinct advantages for high‐wealth households that have grown over time, whereas specialization comes with trade‐offs for low‐wealth households that outweigh its benefits.

Conclusion: The financial trade‐offs associated with overwork and specialization vary considerably across the wealth distribution. Contrary to findings in income‐based research, overwork premiums appear most crucial to the financial well‐being of underprivileged households, whereas specialization premiums are evident only for the economic elite.


Babies, Work, or Both? Highly Educated Women's Employment and Fertility in East Asia Mary C. Brinton, Eunsil Oh

Babies, Work, or Both? Highly Educated Women's Employment and Fertility in East Asia

Author: Mary C. Brinton, Eunsil Oh
Publisher: American Journal of Sociology
Date: 07/2019

Highly educated women’s likelihood of combining childrearing with continuous employment over the life course has increased among recent U.S. cohorts. This trend is less evident in many postindustrial countries characterized by very low fertility. Among such countries, Japan and Korea have exceptionally low proportions of women who remain employed after having children, despite aggressive government policies designed to encourage this. We draw on over 160 in-depth interviews with highly educated Japanese and Korean men and women of childbearing age to uncover the central incompatibilities between married women’s employment and childrearing. Individuals’ narratives reveal how labor market structure and workplace norms contribute to a highly gendered household division of labor, leading many married women to either forsake employment or to consider having only one child.

Adolescent Relationship Quality: Is There an Intergenerational Link? Rachel E. Goldberg, Marta Tienda, Michelle Eilers, Sara S. McLanahan

Adolescent Relationship Quality: Is There an Intergenerational Link?

Author: Rachel E. Goldberg, Marta Tienda, Michelle Eilers, Sara S. McLanahan
Publisher: Journal of Marriage and Family
Date: 05/2019

This study examines intergenerational continuities in relationship instability, general relationship quality, and intimate partner violence (IPV) between mothers and adolescents. A growing body of literature has observed similarities in relationship quality between parents and their adult offspring. Less attention has focused on whether intergenerational continuities are present in adolescent relationships. Using age 3, 5, 9, and 15 data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing birth cohort study (N = 3,162), the authors examined the associations between maternal reports of relationship instability, general quality, and IPV in early and middle childhood and similar adolescent reports at age 15. Variations based on the timing and persistence of exposures were considered. In general, exposures to low‐quality maternal relationships were associated with a higher risk of forming adolescent partnerships and lower relationship quality. Intergenerational links in quality were predominantly construct specific, consistent with observational learning processes. Adolescents exposed to maternal relationships of poor general quality in middle childhood were less likely to report high‐quality relationships themselves, and those exposed to any maternal physical IPV victimization during childhood were more likely to perpetrate IPV in their own relationships. Exposure to maternal relationship instability in both early and middle childhood was associated with more adolescent romantic partners. The study illuminates additional pathways through which healthy and unhealthy relationships are reproduced across generations.


Prenatal Exposure to an Acute Stressor and Children’s Cognitive Outcomes Florencia Torche

Prenatal Exposure to an Acute Stressor and Children’s Cognitive Outcomes

Author: Florencia Torche
Publisher: Demography
Date: 08/2018

Exposure to environmental stressors is highly prevalent and unequally distributed along socioeconomic lines and may have enduring negative consequences, even when experienced before birth. Yet, estimating the consequences of prenatal stress on children’s outcomes is complicated by the issue of confounding (i.e., unobserved factors correlated with stress exposure and with children’s outcomes). I combine a natural experiment—a strong earthquake in Chile—with a panel survey to capture the effect of prenatal exposure on acute stress and children’s cognitive ability. I find that stress exposure in early pregnancy has no effect on children’s cognition among middle-class families, but it has a strong negative influence among disadvantaged families. I then examine possible pathways accounting for the socioeconomic stratification in the effect of stress, including differential exposure across socioeconomic status, differential sensitivity, and parental responses. Findings suggest that the interaction between prenatal exposures and socioeconomic advantage provides a powerful mechanism for the intergenerational transmission of disadvantage.

Marriage Markets and Intermarriage: Exchange in First Marriages and Remarriages Zhenchao Qian, Daniel T. Lichter

Marriage Markets and Intermarriage: Exchange in First Marriages and Remarriages

Author: Zhenchao Qian, Daniel T. Lichter
Publisher: Demography
Date: 04/2018

Drawing on data from the American Community Survey, we compare patterns of assortative mating in first marriages, remarriages, and mixed-order marriages. We identify a number of ascribed and achieved characteristics that are viewed as resources available for exchange, both as complements and substitutes. We apply conditional logit models to show how patterns of assortative mating among never-married and previously married persons are subject to local marriage market opportunities and constraints. The results reveal that previously married individuals “cast a wider net”: spousal pairings are more heterogamous among remarriages than among first marriages. Marital heterogamy, however, is reflected in systematic evidence of trade-offs showing that marriage order (i.e., status of being never-married) is a valued trait for exchange. Never-married persons are better positioned than previously married persons to marry more attractive marital partners, variously measured (e.g., highly educated partners). Previously married persons—especially women—are disadvantaged in the marriage market, facing demographic shortages of potential partners to marry. Marriage market constraints take demographic expression in low remarriage rates and in heterogamous patterns of mate selection in which previously married partners often substitute other valued characteristics in marriage with never-married persons.

family - CPI Affiliates

Elizabeth Peters's picture Elizabeth Peters Family Research Group Leader; Director of Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
The Urban Institute
Linda Burton's picture Linda Burton Poverty Research Group Leader, Dean of the Social Sciences
Duke University
Sara McLanahan's picture Sara McLanahan Family Research Group Leader, Director of Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs
Princeton University
Annette Lareau's picture Annette Lareau Professor of Sociology; Stanley I. Sheerr Professor in the Social Sciences
University of Pennsylvania
Christine Percheski's picture Christine Percheski Assistant Professor of Sociology; Institute for Policy Research Faculty Fellow
Northwestern University


Family - Other Research

Title Author Media
Family Spillovers in Field of Study Gordon B. Dahl, Dan-Olof Rooth, Anders Stenberg

Family Spillovers in Field of Study

Author: Gordon B. Dahl, Dan-Olof Rooth, Anders Stenberg
Publisher: National Bureau of Economic Research
Date: 07/2020

This paper estimates peer effects both from older to younger siblings and from parents to children in academic fields of study. Our setting is secondary school in Sweden, where admissions to oversubscribed fields is determined based on a student's GPA. Using an RD design, we find strong spillovers in field choices that depend on the gender mix of siblings and whether the field is gender conforming. There are also large intergenerational effects from fathers and mothers to sons, except in female-dominated fields, but little effect for daughters. These spillovers have long-term consequences for occupational segregation and wage gaps by gender.

The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality Titan M. Alon, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey, Michèle Tertilt

The Impact of COVID-19 on Gender Equality

Author: Titan M. Alon, Matthias Doepke, Jane Olmstead-Rumsey, Michèle Tertilt
Publisher: National Bureau of Economic Research
Date: 04/2020

The economic downturn caused by the current COVID-19 outbreak has substantial implications for gender equality, both during the downturn and the subsequent recovery. Compared to “regular” recessions, which affect men’s employment more severely than women’s employment, the employment drop related to social distancing measures has a large impact on sectors with high female employment shares. In addition, closures of schools and daycare centers have massively increased child care needs, which has a particularly large impact on working mothers. The effects of the crisis on working mothers are likely to be persistent, due to high returns to experience in the labor market. Beyond the immediate crisis, there are opposing forces which may ultimately promote gender equality in the labor market. First, businesses are rapidly adopting flexible work arrangements, which are likely to persist. Second, there are also many fathers who now have to take primary responsibility for child care, which may erode social norms that currently lead to a lopsided distribution of the division of labor in house work and child care.

Cohabitation and Marriage: Complexity and Diversity in Union Formation Patterns Daniel Lichter, Sharon Sassler

Cohabitation and Marriage: Complexity and Diversity in Union Formation Patterns

Author: Daniel Lichter, Sharon Sassler
Publisher: Journal of Marriage and Family
Date: 01/2020

Nonmarital cohabitation and marriage are now fundamentally linked, a fact that is routinely reflected in current research on union formation. Unprecedented changes in the timing, duration, and sequencing of intimate co‐residential relationships have made the study of traditional marriage far more complex today than in the past. It is now clear that a white, middle‐class, American‐centric research template has become increasingly anachronistic. In this review article, we begin by providing an overview of contemporary theory, empirical approaches, and demographic trends in cohabitation and marriage, focusing primarily on the United States, but also distinguishing the U.S. from patterns found in other high‐income societies, including European countries, Canada, Australia, and in East Asia. We place the spotlight on the causes and consequences of union transitions. We identify the commonalities between cohabitation and marriage, but also key differences that are expressed unevenly across different populations and cultural groups. The rise in nonmarital cohabitation has upended conventional theoretical models and measurement approaches to the study of traditional marriage, complicating matters but also reinvigorating family scholarship on union formation and its implications for partners, children, and society.

Two Methods for Studying the Developmental Significance of Family Structure Trajectories Carol A. Johnston, Robert Crosnoe, Sara E. Mernitz, Amanda M. Pollitt

Two Methods for Studying the Developmental Significance of Family Structure Trajectories

Author: Carol A. Johnston, Robert Crosnoe, Sara E. Mernitz, Amanda M. Pollitt
Publisher: Journal of Marriage and Family
Date: 12/2019


The objective of this research note is to use both sequence analysis (SA) and repeated‐measures latent class analysis (LCA) to identify children's family structure trajectories from birth through age 15 and compare how the two sets of trajectories predict alcohol use across the transition from adolescence into young adulthood.


Contemporary family scholars have studied the influence of changes in family structure, often referred to as family structure instability, on child and adolescent development. Typically, this research has focused on either the number or type of transitions children have experienced, but statistical advances are increasing the viability of more complex person‐centered approaches to this issue, such as SA and LCA. The choice to use one approach or the other, however, is often discipline specific and relies on different assumptions and estimation techniques that may produce different results.


The authors used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth–Child and Youth Cohort (= 11,515) to identify clusters (using SA) and classes (using repeated‐measures LCA) that represented children's family structure trajectories from birth through age 15. Using two multiple‐group random slope models, the authors predicted alcohol use across adolescence and young adulthood (ages 16–24) among the clusters (Model 1) and classes (Model 2).


The SA identified five clusters, but the LCA further differentiated the sample with more detail on timing and identified eight classes. The sensitivity to timing in the LCA solution was substantively relevant to alcohol use across the transition to young adulthood.


Overall, the SA is perhaps more suited to research questions requiring exclusive group membership in large, comparative analyses, and the LCA more appropriate when the research questions include timing or focus on transitioning into or out of single‐parent and stepfamily homes.


Why Does Parental Divorce Lower Children’s Educational Attainment? A Causal Mediation Analysis Jennie E. Brand, Ravaris Moore, Xi Song, Yu Xie

Why Does Parental Divorce Lower Children’s Educational Attainment? A Causal Mediation Analysis

Author: Jennie E. Brand, Ravaris Moore, Xi Song, Yu Xie
Publisher: Sociological Science
Date: 04/2019

Mechanisms explaining the negative effects of parental divorce on children’s attainment have long been conjectured and assessed. Yet few studies of parental divorce have carefully attended to the assumptions and methods necessary to estimate causal mediation effects. Applying a causal framework to linked U.S. panel data, we assess the degree to which parental divorce limits children’s education among whites and nonwhites and whether observed lower levels of educational attainment are explained by postdivorce family conditions and children’s skills. Our analyses yield three key findings. First, the negative effect of divorce on educational attainment, particularly college, is substantial for white children; by contrast, divorce does not lower the educational attainment of nonwhite children. Second, declines in family income explain as much as one- to two-thirds of the negative effect of parental divorce on white children’s education. Family instability also helps explain the effect, particularly when divorce occurs in early childhood. Children’s psychosocial skills explain about one-fifth of the effect, whereas children’s cognitive skills play a minimal role. Third, among nonwhites, the minimal total effect on education is explained by the offsetting influence of postdivorce declines in family income and stability alongside increases in children’s psychosocial and cognitive skills.