The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Formula for Misery? Family Complexity Squared

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Progressives love complexity in family life. Indeed, they mock the natural family—father, mother, and children—as a relic of the simple-minded age of Ozzie and Harriet. But when researchers at Bowling Green State University used a new statistical definition of family complexity to assess American social patterns, they concluded that Americans living in complex families are distinctly disadvantaged.

In recent decades, when researchers have identified a child’s family structure, they have typically focused exclusively on the parents that child lives with: two biological parents, just one biological parent, or one biological parent and a stepparent. But because the researchers at Bowling Green State University believe this understanding of family structure is too narrow, they have devised a more sophisticated conception of family structure, one that incorporates a broader measure of the complexity of family life as determined not only by the parents a child lives with but also the siblings.

As the Bowling Green scholars explain, “We classify children living in complex families as those who reside with a single parent, stepparent (cohabiting or married), half sibling, or stepsibling. This indicator accounts for the parent-child relationship as well as child-child relationships.” As the researchers further explain, their new “measure of family complexity . . . merges family structure and sibling composition to distinguish between simple two-biological-parent families, families with complex-sibling (half or stepsiblings) arrangements, and complex-parent (stepparent, single-parent) families.”

To test the utility of this new metric, the Bowling Green researchers assess nationally representative data collected between 1996 and 2009. These data reveal that “the share of children living in simple two-biological-parent families (no sibling or parent complexity) declined from 62.7 percent in 1996 to 59.2 percent in 2009.” For the same period, the researchers detect “almost no change in the share of children experiencing only sibling complexity.” That is, the researchers find that in 2009 as in 1996 “about 8 percent of children living with two biological parents lived with a sibling who did not share the same parents. Thus, one in twelve children living with two biological parents had a sibling from a different set of parents.”

However, while sibling complexity remained flat during the period in question, the researchers do detect “a small increase in the share of children experiencing only parent complexity, meaning they live with only one biological parent and full (or no) siblings.” This increase in parent complexity appears in statistics indicating that “in 1996, one-quarter (25.1 percent) of children lived with only one biological parent and full siblings [but] in 2009 28.5 percent of children lived with one biological parent and full siblings.” The researchers note that most of the children living with one biological parent and full siblings are “living with a single mother and full siblings,” while the rest live in stepfamilies (cohabiting or married).

But the finding that “overall levels of family complexity only modestly increased since 1996” ought not foster complacency. Quite otherwise. For this study establishes that “family complexity is most concentrated among the disadvantaged.” More particularly, the data establishes that “just 21 percent of children of highly educated parents were in complex families, whereas roughly half of those whose parents had lower levels of education were in complex families. Sibling complexity was over twice as high for children without a college-educated parent: 5.7 and 14.8 percent, respectively.”

Rendering the correlation between family complexity and social disadvantage even more sobering are the indications that such complexity will grow. “Growth in family complexity is expected,” the researchers acknowledge, “due to changes over the last 50 years in union formation and instability, along with rises in the number and types of family transitions.” How can family complexity not grow in a social environment defined by “high rates of nonmarital fertility (40 percent of children are born outside of marriage), growth in cohabitation (60 percent of young adults having ever cohabited), delays in the timing of marriage (median age at marriage is 27 for women and 28.7 for men), stable high rates of divorce (40 percent of first marriages end in divorce), and high levels of repartnering and multiple-partner fertility”? And how can rising family complexity not translate into more and more social misery?

Perhaps it is time to stop mocking the simpler age of Ozzie and Harriet.

(Wendy D. Manning, Susan L. Brown, and J. Bart Stykes, “Family Complexity among Children in the United States,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 654.1 [2014]: 48-65.)