Family Demographic Shifts and Their Policy Implications
Changing Patterns: Since the 1960s, the structure of the average American family has become increasingly unstable as a result of major demographic changes. Marriage rates have fallen over the last few decades while divorce rates have remained high. At the same time, the percent of non-marital births in the U.S. has risen steadily, from approximately 5% in 1960 to 41% in 2011. In addition to this instability, family structures are becoming increasingly complex as rising numbers of single parents pursue new partners and have more children.
Importance: The potential negative impacts of these shifting demographic patterns upon the well-being of children are of particular concern to policy makers. Surveys indicate that children living in single parent households are more likely to live in poverty than children living in married households. According to the 2010 Current ...view middle of the document...
There are two distinct ways of approaching this policy goal. One strategy would be to implement programs that increase marriage rates, either by lowering divorce rates or by increasing marriage rates among non-married parents. Related programs may seek, for example, to develop interpersonal and parenting skills of parents through counseling, training, etc. Skills and jobs-based training may also help overcome the economic barriers to marriage faced by unmarried parents.
Another strategy for pursuing this goal would be to promote programs and policies that reduce unplanned and unwanted non-marital births. The American teenage population would be the primary target for such policies. Approximately 22% of all non-marital births are to teens, and children of teen parents are at particularly high risk for negative outcomes. Policies intended to reduce unplanned teen pregnancies would therefore be a particularly effective way of increasing child well-being outcomes.
Inequality of Instability: Low-income and minority families have been disproportionately affected by family demographic trends. According to the 2010 CPS, 65% of black children resided in homes where the parents were not married, as opposed to only 29% of white children. Children raised in single-mother minority families were also significantly more likely to live in poverty. It is important that policies seeking to strengthen family structures prioritize improved outcomes for low-income and minority populations. Non-targeted programs should be contextually adapted to ensure relevance and impact.
Conclusion: It is important to note that the correlations between marriage and child welfare highlighted in this brief do not equate to causation. Marriage may not, in and of itself, produce positive child outcomes. For example, pushing couples into marriage who are not compatible, who lack economic resources, or who lack parenting skills may result in parental stress and/or breakups that ultimately have no (if not a negative) affect on children. However, policymakers may have enough evidence to move forward with programs aimed at promoting healthy marriages as well as those that seek to reduce unwanted teen pregnancies.