Collaborative Research: Family Structure and Inequality in Contemporary America

Project: Research project

Project Details


Project Summary This project analyzes economic inequality among families with children in the contemporary American landscape. The goal is to ascertain whether family structure per se has become more important over time in explaining economic inequality, or whether it is the constellation of factors associated with family structure that have grown in importance. The PIs achieve this goal by analyzing a set of heretofore overlooked factors that apply to many American households: family instability, income volatility, ownership of wealth and assets, and the receipt of near-cash benefits. Data, for the years 1980-2013, come from the Current Population Survey and the Survey of Income and Program Participation. Families with at least one resident child under the age of 18 will be classified into one of seven family types. The study will decompose changes in family economic resources into between- and within-family type components and estimate income volatility, within family type, using both the standard deviation and permanent and transitory variances of family income. The PIs consider both static measures of, and over-time changes in, family structure. Intellectual merit The proposal has a high degree of intellectual merit insofar as it will produce the first set of analyses of economic inequality among families with children that simultaneously examine multiple elements that characterize contemporary America: high levels of family instability, increasing income volatility, a social safety net based primarily on labor market attachment and tax transfers, and the disproportionate accumulation of wealth and assets. The PIs have five specific research objectives: 1) Ascertain whether family structure per se has become more important in explaining economic inequality by comparing the over-time contribution of between- and within-family inequality; 2) Investigate variation in within-group inequality across family types and over time; 3) Explore how income volatility is associated with the level of within-group economic inequality; 4) Analyze how family instability is associated with income inequality and consider how changes in levels of instability are related to the distribution of static family structures; and 5) Compare the trends in inequality of market income with those of post-tax and transfer income and of wealth and assets. Accomplishment of these aims fills in significant gaps in the current understanding of how economic inequality operates among American families with children. Broader impacts Distinguishing the relative contributions of within- and between- family inequality, and how those trends vary by source of income (such as market versus transfer income), is critical to illuminating the role of changes in family structure versus changes in other social and economic institutions. Larger increases in between-family inequality suggests that the nexus of the problem lies with family structure itself, and that policies should be directed towards specific family types (e.g., never-married mother families) that are falling behind economically. Alternatively, relatively greater increases in within-family inequality that are widely shared across family types suggests that the crux of the problem lies outside of family processes and that policies should address larger systemic issues (e.g., a primarily work-based social safety net). Moreover, our project will provide a sociological and demographic perspective to a field of study that has been under-researched by sociologists. Our project will contribute richly to several are
Effective start/end date5/1/154/30/17


  • National Science Foundation (SES‐1459631)


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