Family Formation. A nuclear family is formed with a first birth to a couple. Indicators of this first step in the process of family formation need to take into consideration current trends in marital status at birth, as well as the intendedness of the pregnancy. Both have important implications for the stability of the union as well as the quality of parenting (Brown & Eisenberg, 1995). Children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to be of low birthweight, which can lead to developmental delays, and to have access to more limited social, economic, and emotional resources (McLanahan, 1995). In a study of “fragile families”, or newly unwed parents, McLanahan et al (2001) found that half of unmarried mothers are living with the fathers of their children, and that the parents are committed to each other and to their child. However, they face many barriers to marriage, including unemployment or incarceration of fathers, and poor relationship skills.
Family Types. Existing indicators of family structure typically include an indicator on the proportion of children living with two parents (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 2002). However, research indicates that living with both biological parents gives children an advantage over other types of two-parent families, including one biological and one step-parent, and one biological parent with a cohabiting partner. Children living in the latter types of two-parent families appear to have outcomes that are more similar to children living in single-parent families (Moore, Jekielek, & Emig, 2002). In developing indicators for families, however, consideration must be given to the well-being of all family members, and remarriage and cohabitation can have important benefits for a single parent, including economic benefits, sharing of household chores and parenting responsibilities, and emotional support and companionship.
Cohabitation is an increasingly common experience for children — it has been estimated that at least two-fifths of all children will spend some time in a cohabiting family before age 16 — and this likelihood is higher among certain groups of children, particularly among black children (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). Children living in cohabiting families tend to be worse off economically compared to children living with married parents, and they are at higher risk of experiencing future instability in their living arrangements (Manning & Lichter, 1996; Graefe & Lichter, 1999).
Youth who have spent time in single-parent families are more likely to perform worse in school, to drop out of high school, and to have a birth while a teen, and are less likely to enroll in college or to be working as young adults, even after adjusting for other family background characteristics (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994). Parental involvement and supervision in high school is lower among single parents than in other family types, and community resources available to single-parent families are weaker. Loss of income and higher residential mobility are two of the negative effects of family disruption that help explain differences among youth outcomes in single versus two-parent families (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994).
Transitions in Family Structure. Children involved in divorce are also more likely to experience problems with behavior, social competence, and psychological adjustment (Amato, 2000). Divorce has major negative consequences for adults as well as children in a family, including economic hardship, lower levels of psychological well-being, and difficulty with parenting; but there can also be positive consequences, including higher levels of autonomy, personal growth, and happiness (Amato, 2000).
Transitions and instability in family structure, per se, can lead to negative outcomes for young adult well-being. For example, instability in family structure was found to be more predictive of premarital births among young adults than specific experiences of family disruption (Wu & Martinson, 1993).
Parental incarceration is also associated with psychosocial and health problems in the family (Kemper & Rivara, 1993). Maternal imprisonment, in particular, can result in major changes in family structure, such as children being put into kinship care arrangements with grandparents or other relatives, or placed into foster care (Young & Smith, 2000; Johnson & Waldfogel, 2002).
Therefore, monitoring the incidence of family structure transitions (other than births and adoptions) is important. Grandparents and other extended family members can provide critical support during times of family transitions or crises, such as marital disruption, parental unemployment, and imprisonment (Cherlin & Furstenberg, 1986; Hill, 1999), and often provide child care while parents work. According to some studies, in families where no biological father is present, the presence of extended family members in the home tends to offset the absence of the father. Children from families with a grandmother, aunt, or other family member in the house tend to thrive as well as those from two-parent families (DeLeire & Kalil, 2002; Wilson & Tolson,1990). Therefore, the presence of extended family members, and the nature and extent of their involvement in the structure and function of a family are important to measure in portraying the social context of families.