Broad social and economic factors can influence trends in child maltreatment. The connection between the two is difficult to ascertain because of the uncertainties in the data and the complex causal relationship factors that contribute to maltreatment. Nevertheless, it is important to monitor and probe social trends to explore their possible effects on child maltreatment, said Christina Paxson, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs and the Hughes Rogers Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University. Understanding these trends can indicate what might happen in the future as social and economic influences continue to change and can shape the research agenda to anticipate these changes.
Demographic Structure of American Families
American families look much different today than they have in the past. In the 1950s, only about 5 percent of U.S. births were to unmarried women. After a steady increase over the past five decades, that number is today approximately 40 percent (Ventura, 2009). This does not mean that children are living in households without men, said Paxson. Slightly more than 50 percent of children who are born to unmarried women live with parents who are cohabiting, and these relationships are often stable. Nevertheless, the increase in unmarried births has focused the attention of researchers on what happens in these families. For example, children who are born to unmarried women, whether cohabiting or not, experience a greater frequency of transitions in living arrangements within their households. They are more likely to live with nonbiological fathers, and they are more likely to have step-siblings in a household. “How do these different family structures influence children?” asked Paxson.
Longitudinal data are needed to understand how family structure is related to maltreatment, said Paxson. Such data can reveal the family transitions that have happened over time, how such transitions affect the attachment of parents to children, and the types of risks to which children are exposed. “This is an important area for research and one that is necessitated by the continuing trends that we see in the structure of American families,” Paxson said.