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 

Why is the Family Safety Net Fraying? It’s Complicated!

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Progressives love complex families. Indeed, they go out of their way to sneer at simple, old-fashioned families in which children live with their own biological father and mother. But the family complexity these progressives love comes at a very high price. In a new analysis of available social science, the prominent scholars Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University and Judith Seltzer of the University of California, Los Angeles, warn that growing complexity in American family life is compromising the family safety net that Americans have long depended on in times of difficulty.

In a study recently published in The Annals: The American Academy of Political Science, Cherlin and Seltzer remark that “the American public shares the public-policy assumption that family members will help each other.” That assumption has long prevailed because Americans have generally recognized a distinctive “responsibility to help children, parents, and grandchildren weather hardship.”

But Cherlin and Seltzer see the number of Americans willing to bear this responsibility waning, as “Changes in the American family that separate marriage and child-rearing—high percentages of children born outside of marriage, cohabiting relationships, the instability of marriages—have made families of the twenty-first century more complex than the idealized vision of a married mother and father living together with their biological children.”

And the two authors of this new commentary see reason to believe that “Americans’ more complicated family lives may be fraying the family safety net that protects vulnerable children.” 

The fraying of this safety net, Cherlin and Seltzer explain, reflects in large degree the emergence of new ambiguities in family responsibilities. Though the two scholars see Americans as still usually willing to help children, parents, and grandchildren, they acknowledge that their “willingness to help depends on just what kind of child, parent, or grandchild needs help.” In short, because fewer American families now rest on the foundation of an enduring parental marriage, current social dynamics “challenge the effectiveness of the family safety net because . . . demographic changes create ambiguity about who is in the family.”

That ambiguity emerges in stepfamilies, where it saps willingness to render intra-family assistance. As Cherlin and Seltzer explain, “Stepparent-stepchild relationships may be problematic in adulthood. Adult stepchildren and their stepmothers are less likely to live together, less likely to live nearby, and less likely to move closer than adult biological children and their mothers. And adult stepchildren are less likely to assist their stepparents than are biological children.” Perhaps even more worrisome is the ambiguous relation between stepfathers and stepchildren. Cherlin and Seltzer point to studies showing that “if a mother and stepfather divorce, many Americans think that a stepfather’s obligation to help support his stepchildren ends.” And they acknowledge that, “later in life, adult stepchildren’s obligations to help an aging stepfather depend on whether he is still married to the child’s mother.”

If the ambiguity that family complexity incubates in stepfamilies creates problems, then the ones it creates among unmarried parents look even worse. Cherlin and Seltzer see “the greatest ambiguities” in contemporary family complexity arising “when marriage is never part of the picture and when parents and children are linked through cohabiting relationships and relationships that do not even reach the point of living together.”

If this sobering new analysis discomforts progressive enthusiasts for family complexity, their discomfort will only grow more intense when Cherlin and Seltzer discredit two of the arguments frequently deployed to allay concerns about family complexity.

First, the two analysts counter the view that twenty-first-century family complexity is actually nothing new—divorce has merely replaced spousal death as the reason for that complexity, runs the progressives’ de minimus argument. In the first place, Cherlin and Seltzer emphasize, family dissolution due to spousal death “did not lead to the kinds of ties across households that occur when a parent leaves the household, perhaps to start another family.” What is more, the pair of analysts point to studies concluding that “the negative effects of experiencing a parental death are weaker than are the effects of experiencing a parental divorce, perhaps due to the lack of marital discord that precedes divorce or to institutionalized sympathy and support for widowed parents and their children.”

Second, Cherlin and Seltzer challenge the view that aggressive government collection of child support will compensate for problems consequent to family complexity. The analysts question whether government will be able to collect sufficient child support “among low-income men who have children with more than one partner . . . [and who believe they] should provide support to their current partner and to their partner’s children first and then, if anything is left, provide support to children who are living with previous partners.” Because “this disjuncture exists between what public policy says fathers should prioritize and what low-income fathers and their current partners think,” Cherlin and Seltzer believe that “it will be difficult for policies to succeed in encouraging an optimal level of support for all children living in complex families.”

With good reason, Cherlin and Seltzer believe “concern about family complexity . . . [should focus] attention on vulnerable children and who is available to care for them and launch them into adulthood.” To be sure, they believe that grandparents may help with that caring and launching. However, because family complexity has grown particularly intense among the nation’s most disadvantaged groups, they fear “that the demand for grandparent assistance is likely to be greatest in families in which the oldest generation is least able to help”: “the family safety net, frayed or strong, can only stretch as far as its members’ financial resources allow,” with “complex families . . . among those most economically vulnerable.”

The analysts suggest that the current circumstances underscore the “importance of combining public support with private, family support.” But only the terminally naïve believe that a nation now staggering under phenomenal levels of public debt is going to find resources to compensate for the huge rents torn in the family safety net by growing family complexity.

Perhaps it is time to recover the firm safety nets found in the natural family of a father and mother enduringly married as they care for their children.


(Andrew J. Cherlin and Judith A. Seltzer, “Family Complexity, the Family Safety Net, and Public Policy,” The Annals: The American Academy of Political and Social Science 654.1 [2014]: 231-9.)