family structure and dynamics, researchers need to explore new ways of conceptualizing and measuring household characteristics.


Family living arrangements and trajectories are increasingly varied and complex in the United States. Age of marriage is at an all-time high. Cohabitation, not marriage, is the typical first type of union in U.S. society. Divorce and remarriage remain common, and births to unmarried women have accelerated rapidly, from 5 percent in 1960 to about 40 percent today.

These changing family dynamics have major implications for the living arrangements of children, said Susan Brown, professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University and codirector of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research. Furthermore, these living arrangements can have major consequences for children’s health and well-being, since children in unmarried families experience greater family instability, on average. Drawing on a recent review (Brown, 2010a) of the literature on family structure, instability, and child well-being, Brown discussed current measurement approaches and challenges.

The diversity of children’s family experiences begins at birth. Of the 40 percent of births occurring outside marriage, half are to unmarried cohabiting couples (Martin et al., 2009). The fertility rates of cohabiting and married women are actually today about equal. As a result, children are spending less time in married-parent families and more time in families that are formed outside marriage.

Table 2-1 shows the distribution of children’s living arrangements according to a recent census report. The majority of children—60 percent—still reside in traditional families with two biological married parents. The second most common family form for children is the single-mother family, in which about 20 percent of all children reside, followed by the married stepfamily category. Less common family forms for children include two biological cohabiting-parent families, cohabiting stepfamilies similar to the married stepfamily, single-father families, and children who live without either biological parent.

Demographers have developed innovative ways of conceptualizing and measuring family structure. These new approaches consider heterogeneity among two-parent families, the definition of family membership, some emerging family forms, how and when family structure is measured, and ambiguous family boundaries.

These new ways of thinking about two-parent families also make it possible to begin examining how children who live in traditional married biological two-parent families compare with those in other family

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