Discussion The Family and Its Complexities

March 8, 2022
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 Discussion The Family and Its Complexities

Discussion The Family and Its Complexities

Definition of Family: Discuss the ways in which we define the “family” and the complexities of such a definition. You should explain how family is defined by the law, how it is defined more generally in society, how you define it, and how definitions of the family have changed over time. Why do you think we need or do not need an agreed upon definition. Discuss how you think the definition of the family will change in the next decade or two.

INTRODUCTION

Rising union instability (owing to high rates of cohabitation, nonmarital child-bearing, divorce, and repartnering) in the context of persistent fertility rates has led to an increase in family complexity. Particularly notable is multiple-partner fertility, or adults who have biological children by more than one partner (result-ing in children who have at least one half sibling). A sizable fraction of adults today will have children with more than one partner (for example, 13 percent of men ages 40 to 44 in 2006–2010 [Guzzo, this volume])—with even larger propor-tions among some disadvantaged subgroups. These changes and trends in family life are important for understanding both the causes and consequences of pov-erty and likely have implications for broader trends in inequality. And as the reach and effects of many antipoverty policies vary with family structure, changes in family life will pose challenges to the effective design and operation of a host of social programs and policies.What Is Family Complexity?It is difficult to define family complexity in a way that scholars and policy-makers find useful, since it can encompass many aspects of variation and instability in families. We observe that simple nuclear families are easier to describe. For example, a woman and man marry, begin living together around the time they marry, have children together following marriage, and do not dissolve the mar-riage or have children with others. This means that marriage is lifelong, that coresidence and marriage always go together, and that fertility occurs only within marriage. In contrast, complexity occurs when marriage and legal ties, living arrangements, fertility, and parenting are not coterminous, that is, when roles and relationships diverge from the simple nuclear family scheme. Members of a family (however defined by a given individual) may have differences among them in biological ties, legal relationships, where they live, and how long they live there. In fact, individuals in the same family or household may differ notably in who they “count” when asked to describe who is in their family (Braithwaite et al. 2010).Conceptually, complexity can result from differential attachment across a cat-egory that is and only can be discrete. For example, different children in the same residence may have different biological parents. In addition, complexity can emerge due to the variability in categories that were previously thought to be—but are not necessarily—discrete. For example, an old two-part classification in which children live with either one or two parents will not capture the complexity of parental cohabitation that occurs a few nights per week, or children who may regularly live in more than one home due to shared custody arrangements. Discussion The Family and Its ComplexitiesThis discussion does not even begin to address individuals who are considered to be family members by those with whom they do not share biology, legality, or coresi-dence (i.e., fictive kin).Given our concerns for children’s well-being and the success of the next gen-eration—and for effective public policies to support disadvantaged families withchildren—in this volume we limit our focus to families with minor children (under age 18). We do not focus on other important aspects of complexity that arise among adults only, such as elders living with their adult children. Key exam-ples of complex families for our purposes include (1) stepfamilies, where one parent is biologically related to his or her child(ren) and the other adult has a step or social relationship to the child(ren) of the first parent;

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(2) single-parent fami-lies where the mother has children with two or more partners (who may or may not have lived with her); and (3) three-generation families, where children, par-ents, and grandparents share the same residence.Even as we note the rapid pace of family change in recent decades, it is impor-tant to recognize that family complexity is not new. With high mortality rates through the early twentieth century, it was not uncommon for a man or woman to lose a spouse (partner) to death during the child-rearing years, and it was not uncommon to then remarry (repartner) (Bumpass 1984). A woman could, thus, have children with a new partner after losing her husband while still in her repro-ductive years. A man of any age could have children with a new woman, after losing his wife or partner.The newer forms of union instability are less exogenous than death and occur primarily because individuals do not enter a (stable) union before having children (i.e., nonmarital childbearing) or because childbearing occurs within unions that do not last until the end of a woman’s reproductive years (i.e., separation or divorce). With rising divorce in the latter half of the twentieth century, remar-riage and subsequent childbearing also increased family complexity. Bumpass (1984) found that in 1980, fully 19 percent of children living with their mother had at least one half sibling. Because those with low education are more likely to have nonmarital births (England, Shafer, and Wu 2012), to get divorced (Martin 2006), and to begin childbearing earlier and have more children (Wilde, Batchelder, and Ellwood 2010) than those with high education, today’s family complexity disproportionately occurs among those with low socioeconomic status.Why Do We Care?There is some disagreement in the empirical research literature over the extent to which complexity in and of itself is detrimental to children; this question is addressed throughout the articles in this volume. Some argue that the primary issue is the economic resources available to children, and that complexity is pri-marily a problem if it diminishes the resources necessary to provide a rich envi-ronment for children’s development. Indeed, there is little disagreement that complexity is more common among disadvantaged families, nor is there much controversy about asserting that relationship dissolution often leads to economic difficulties, or that economic difficulties often create additional difficulties for children’s well-being. For the purposes of this article, then, we do not feel a need to try to determine precisely the extent to which complexity causes difficulties for children directly—it is enough to say that complexity can create difficulties indi-rectly or be correlated with markers of disadvantage, which policy may intend to address.Family complexity is of concern because it affects the character, composition, and resource-sharing within families—the social institution that (especially in a liberal welfare regime) is still expected to take primary and ongoing responsibility for the care and socialization of children. In the midst of family complexity, resources that would otherwise be concentrated within a single household are dif-fused across households. For example, men who have fathered children with more than one woman and do not live with their children often do not have the economic resources to provide significant levels of support to all of these families (Cancian and Meyer 2011; Sinkewicz and Garfinkel 2009). Moreover, family complexity means there is greater ambiguity in family roles and responsibilities; for example, the stepparent role is not well defined, and children may not receive the level of emotional support that they need from either their nonresidential biological father or their stepfather (Cherlin 1992; Stewart 2006). Finally, complexity may mean greater fluidity in living arrangements, as romantic partners of one parent move in and out of children’s lives. Since complexity is most concentrated among disadvan-taged populations—and living amid a complex family may further diminish fami-lies’ ability to support their children—growing family complexity may contribute to broader societal inequality both within and across generations. As such, family complexity represents an important aspect of the “diverging destinies” of children in different socioeconomic groups (McLanahan 2004).Complexity is also of concern from the perspective of public policy, in two respects. First, public policy is charged with supporting the diverse range of families that currently exist. To do so, programs must accurately assess the com-position, size, and living arrangements of families for purposes of determining eligibility and benefit levels; but this becomes more complicated in the context of family complexity. Second, public policy may affect family patterns in the next generation (whether intended or not). As such, policy could either increase or reduce complexity via the various incentives and disincentives of programs that target particular family units and hence encourage or discourage particular fam-ily behaviors. We return to the implications of family complexity for public policy in our concluding article to this volume.This VolumeIn this volume, leading scholars explore multiple aspects of contemporary family complexity in the United States, focusing particularly on families with minor children. The articles are grouped into three broad areas. The first several arti-cles provide important conceptual and descriptive background for exploring fam-ily complexity. Frank F. Furstenberg summarizes the broad context for the emergence of family complexity in the United States over the past 50 years. He identifies the gender-based division of labor as the key driving factor that increased complexity; he highlights the growing stratification by socioeconomic status in the prevalence and nature of family complexity; and he reminds us to reserve judgment about how complexity may affect children before we have direct evidence. Maria Cancian and Ron Haskins provide new descriptive evi-dence about how changing family patterns are linked to income and poverty. Discussion The Family and Its ComplexitiesRepresenting diverging viewpoints, they summarize the facts about family and economic change and then highlight areas of agreement and disagreement in what could and should be done in terms of public policy. The last article in the first section, by Wendy Manning, Susan Brown, and J. Bart Stykes, uses data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation to provide new estimates of children’s experiences of family complexity over 1996 to 2009. They highlight variation by race/ethnicity and parental education, and demonstrate that family complexity is more common among disadvantaged children.The second set of articles explores key aspects or domains of family complex-ity. Karen Benjamin Guzzo provides new evidence about the prevalence of multiple-partner fertility among particular subgroups using data about men and women in their forties. Lawrence Berger and Sharon Bzostek use data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to evaluate the extent to which adults occupy particular combinations and sequences of partner and parental roles at particular ages. Rachel Dunifon, Kathleen Ziol-Guest, and Kimberly Kopko highlight the role of grandparents in caring for children in particular complex family arrangements—either grandparent coresidence with parents and children, or grandparents serving as primary caregivers for children when their parents are not present. Bryan Sykes and Becky Pettit draw our attention to family complex-ity as linked to the criminal justice system amid the rising share of men (espe-cially minority and low-educated men) who spend time in jail or prison.The third set of articles provides information about key elements of family processes amid complexity. Ariel Kalil, Rebecca Ryan, and Elise Chor provide new estimates of time spent with children by multiple caregivers across various family types. Laura Tach, Kathryn Edin, Hope Harvey, and Brielle Bryan explore fathering behaviors in the context of complexity, and they highlight that most fathers are involved in intensive parenting of some children, whether biological children or nonbiological children (who are the children of their partner). Linda Burton identifies the challenges for mothers to pursue romantic relationships amidst their responsibilities as mothers to their own children and the children of their partners.Finally, we include several articles and commentaries that point to the broader implications of family complexity for public policy and society. Leonard Lopoo and Kerri Raissian summarize what we know about how public policy affects family behaviors that lead to complexity. Andrew Cherlin and Judith Seltzer com-ment from the perspective of family demographers, Isabel Sawhill from that of a policy scholar, and Elizabeth Thomson from an international perspective. The volume concludes with our own reflections on future directions for policy and research.

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