Informal and Formal Kinship Care. State-Level Distribution of Living Arrangements


Although the census STF data provide little direct descriptive information about kinship care at the national level, they allow extension of this work through examination of variations observed within and across places. This section addresses the distribution of American child living arrangements at the state level.

The full distribution of child living arrangements for each state is presented in Table 2.2a-c both as counts and percentages. (Table 2.2a includes all children under 18 years of age, and the same information is shown in Table 2.2.b for children ages 0-5 and in Table 2.2.c for children ages 6-17). A brief inspection of the percent distributions will show a wide variation in the pattern of child caretaking across the states. The District of Columbia is a clear outlier, with just over one-third of its children living with two parents and almost one-half living in settings with a mother present and father absent. Across the fifty states, the percentage of children living with two parents still varies significantly, from 61.6 percent in Mississippi to 83.9 percent in Utah.

Looking at kinship care directly, the percentage of children who lived in the care of relatives in 1990 ranges from a low of 0.8 percent in both Minnesota and North Dakota to highs of 3.7 percent in Mississippi and 6.0 percent in Washington, D.C.. Although the differences between these kinship percentages is rather small, the proportional differences can be quite large. For example, a child in Mississippi is over four and one-half times more likely to live in a kinship care arrangement than is a child from Minnesota.

The same basic patterns are replicated in Tables 2.2b and 2.2c for the separate age groups. As was seen in the national percentage, the 0-5 age group is significantly less likely to live in a non-parental (relative or unrelated) setting than are children in the 6-17 year age group. Overall, the across-state variations for both age groups seem to mirror what was observed for all children in Table 2.2a.

Two features of the data in Table 2.2 stand out. First, the state-by-state distributions of child living arrangements show an apparent tendency to vary regionally, or at least, many geographically proximate states seem to have similar child living patterns. Second, each state's distribution appears to be dominated by the first living arrangement category, the number of children living with two parents. The values of all of the other categories are very much bounded, or restricted, by the percentage of children in two-parent homes. For example, because only 61.6 percent of Mississippi children live with two parents, 38.4 percent of the child population remains to be divided across the Mother Only, Father Only, Relative and Unrelated categories. In Utah, by contrast, only 16.1 percent of the child population fit into these categories. Because this "pool" of children who do not live with two parents varies so greatly across states, we need to be careful in interpreting direct numerical differences in the population percentages for the various categories across states. Although these raw population percentages accurately represent the final net impact of children living in a certain care setting, it is not as clear that they can usefully represent the processes and tendencies by which children come into these arrangements.

Table 2.3 presents the child living arrangement percentage data for states, now ordered within census regions instead of alphabetically. To aid in interpreting these patterns, this table also adds a new series of "conditional percentages" of children living in given arrangements. Columns (3)-(7) replicate the population percentages that were presented above in Table 2.2a, with the sole change that column (3) is modified to show the percentage of children not living with two parents instead of the percentage that do live with two parents. Columns (8)-(11) present the percentage of children in each of the other living arrangements, given that these children are not living in a two-parent family setting. These conditional percentages reflect our understanding that the original population percentages can be separated into two parts: the likelihood that a child lives without both parents, and the likelihood that a child living with less than two parents lives in the particular type of care arrangement. The formal mathematical relationship is represented by a simple equation:

Proportion(kinship care) = Prop (not/2 parents) * Prop (kinship | not2 parents)
Population proportion of children in kinship care Population proportion of children not living living with 2 parents Conditional proportion of kinship: i.e., proportion of those children not living with two parents who are in kinship care.


Thus, two states can have similar proportions of children living with relatives, yet have very different underlying relationships. For example, Arkansas and Louisiana are neighboring states that have similar (2.9 percent and 3.1 percent) population levels of children living in kinship care. However, in Arkansas, 28.6 percent of all children do not live with two parents, and 10.3 percent of these live in kinship settings. In Louisiana, 36.3 percent of all children do not live with two parents, but only 8.5 percent of these live in kinship settings. By the formula above:

Arkansas .29 = .286 * .103 and Louisiana .31 = .363 * .085

This formally expresses the relationships observed -- that although children in Arkansas are more likely than children in Louisiana to live with both of their parents, because a higher proportion of those not living with both parents are in kinship care settings in Arkansas, the two states have similar proportions of children in kinship living arrangements.

Although technically correct, this last description of this decomposition and the conditional relationship is fairly sterile and free of interpretive power. Introducing some inferences about the meaning of these components can help to bring more meaning to their relationship. In this vein, it shall be (provisionally) assumed that maintenance of two-parent care situations for children is both "preferable" and "preferred" in American society, and that the nuclear family is the primary care arrangement. The likelihood of a child leaving a two-parent family is very low, and the processes by which children do enter mother-only, father-only, relative, and unrelated care settings tend to occur only in the absence of (or disbanding of) the nuclear family unit. These other four categories appear then to result from processes that sort out children from a residual group that cannot be cared for in a two-parent living setting.(9)

Following this line of argument, the component presented in column (3), the proportion of children not living with two parents, will be loosely interpreted as representing the "level of family disruption," or the extent to which caring for children differs from that of the nuclear family. The "disruption" can result from parental breakup through separation, divorce, or death, or it could be the result of family "non-formation." But in the aggregate, this indicator will be held as a proxy for family disruption and disorganization. The conditional percentages in columns (8) through (11), then, can be interpreted as "tendencies" of children of disrupted family situations to locate, or to be located, in a given care arrangement. Returning to the two-state example discussed above, the relationship might now be described as Louisiana showing higher statewide levels of initial family disruption than Arkansas, but with Arkansas demonstrating a greater tendency to place the children from these disrupted families in kinship settings.

Column (12) presents a second type of conditional percentage, the percent of children living in kinship settings, given that they live with neither of their parents. This indicator directly measures the relative share of children in kinship versus unrelated living arrangements, assuming that they will live in either of these two types of arrangement.

The conditional percentages in columns (8) through (12) are necessarily higher than the comparable population percentages in columns (3) through (7) because they are computed from a smaller and more restricted population base. Because the numbers are larger, the absolute differences between these conditional percentages viewed across states tend to be larger than those observed with population percentages. At the same time, one effect of controlling for the variation due to "family disruption" has been to reduce the degree of proportional variation within these columns. A clear example is the District of Columbia, which for the most part shows conditional living arrangement percentages similar to those of its neighboring states. The reason D.C. is such an extreme outlier in its distribution of population percentages is almost entirely explained by the extremely high numbers of children not living with two parents, and not by its consequent placement tendencies and patterns.

Nationally, the percentage of children without two parents who live with their mothers-only varies across states from of 61.9 percent in Alaska to 75.7 percent in Louisiana. Similarly, the conditional percentage living with their fathers-only ranges from 9.8 percent in Washington, D.C. to 21.1 percent in Alaska; the conditional percentage living with relatives varies from 4.0 percent in Vermont to 10.3 percent in Arkansas; and the conditional percent with unrelated persons ranges from 4.6 percent in Alabama to 11.5 percent in Utah.

Clearly, regional patterns and regularities do exist in these data. Table 2.4 presents the same indicators, summed across states, for each of the four census-defined regions of the nation. The South has the highest "family disruption" level, with 30.5 percent of its children living without two parents, while the Midwest has the lowest levels at 25.5 percent.

The regional distribution of these children between alternative living arrangements, given that they are not with two parents, also shows clear patterns. The West has the lowest level of Mother-Only arrangements (64.9 percent), and the highest level of Father-Only (17.4 percent) and unrelated (9.7 percent) arrangements. The Midwest and Northeast have patterns similar to each other, with the highest levels of Mother-Only placement (73.6 percent and 73.2 percent, respectively), and low levels of Father-Only and kinship arrangements. The South shows the highest level of kinship arrangements (9.2 percent), the lowest level of unrelated placements (6.3 percent), and moderate levels for both single-parent only arrangements. The South is the only region where the level of kinship arrangements exceeds the level of unrelated arrangements.

Looking back to the individual state information in Table 2.3, we can see substantial variation remaining between the states within each region, but that the overall regional patterns remain evident. For example, West Virginia has the lowest conditional kinship percentage of any southern state, but at 8.4 percent it is larger than the conditional kinship percentage in all but two of the non-southern states (California and Hawaii).

It is not possible to explain these regional, or state, patterns from the data at hand. A variety of cultural, racial, economic and social influences vary by place -- and any or all of them might affect living arrangement patterns. The South has a higher concentration of African Americans and is more rural than the rest of the nation. The populations of the Midwest and Northeast are heavily urbanized. The West contains a higher proportion of recent immigrants and the largest Hispanic population. All of these factors and many others could contribute to these differences, and cannot really be pursued without better individual-level data. Even though explanation is elusive, systematic patterns of child living arrangements across these places provides evidence that the choices involved in how we care for our children are clearly linked to other social, cultural, and economic influences in our society.

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