If the experts are right, the United States is about to perform one of the great policy feats in the nation’s history. Starting in July, under a newly retrofitted Child Tax Credit (CTC), the IRS will begin sending monthly checks of $250 per child ($300 for children under six) to families with adjusted gross incomes under $150,000. Part of the Covid-era American Rescue Plan, the revamped CTC will benefit the large majority of American families with kids, but its biggest impact will be felt by the approximately 10 million children below the poverty line. The prediction is eye-popping: the new law, the consensus has it, will slash child poverty in half.

No question, that would be transformational. Up until now, the U.S. has held the dubious distinction among wealthy nations of having the most austere social policies and one of the highest child-poverty rates. The revised CTC could bring the U.S. more in line with its peer countries by supporting parents with a child allowance and assuaging some of poverty’s more palpable threats to children’s well-being like hunger, malnutrition, and homelessness. Poverty researchers point to studies—some applicable, some less so—suggesting that the money will dramatically change the futures of America’s poor kids.

I’m skeptical.

My doubts owe to something most Americans don’t like talking about: children in the U.S, particularly in lower-income households, are far more likely to grow up in unstable families—with a revolving cast of stepparents, half-siblings, stepsiblings, divorces, separations, and short-term romantic partners—than kids anywhere else. These “complex families,” as they’re sometimes called, can be every bit as damaging to children as poverty itself.

Sound exaggerated? It’s not. True, complex families have been a growing part of American life since the social revolutions of the late 1960s and 1970s, but few outside the small circle of family researchers have understood the extent of this change. Up until 2007, the Census Bureau asked respondents only whether children in the household were living with “one parent” or “two parents.” Two parents could refer to anything from a married couple celebrating their silver anniversary to a mother and a cohabiting partner who might or might not be the child’s father. Thus, the data gave a misleadingly benign impression of family arrangements. In 2014, the bureau began collecting data on multiple-partner fertility—that is, children by more than one partner. With these upgrades, we now have a clearer picture of the role complex families play in American poverty.

When it comes to multi-partner fertility and complex families, the U.S. is truly number one. More than one in six American kids live with a step- or half-sibling by age four. Middle-class readers might assume that this has to do with divorce and remarriage, but for most children, instability begins with cohabiting or single parents. Family complexity is especially common among single—or never-married—men and women, regardless of whether they were cohabiting at the time of first birth. Half the children born to cohabiting but unmarried parents will see them break up by their third birthday, compared with only 11 percent of kids born to married parents. About 21 percent of married parents report having a child with another partner, but 59 percent of unmarried couples have at least one child with another partner. Sixty percent of single parents go on to have a second child with another partner within ten years of the first birth.

Of course, affluent parents also divorce and remarry, and many middle-class couples make happy second marriages, with thriving children and warm relationships between ex-spouses and step- and half-siblings. Plenty of single mothers, including those with low incomes, also manage to give their kids a stable home life. But like seemingly everything else in America these days, complex families tend to be a class marker—one that helps produce and perpetuate inequality.

Child poverty closely tracks nonmarital childbearing and multi-partner fertility. About 58 percent of poor children live in households headed by unmarried mothers; 60 percent of the firstborn children of those mothers will have at least one half-sibling by age ten. Meantime, middle-class and wealthy kids are almost always born to married parents, whose divorce rates have declined markedly over the past decades. Their chances of growing up with the two parents who carried them home from the maternity ward are fairly high. However, those middle-class children whose married parents do divorce are at high risk of downward mobility; in fact, 28 percent of poor adults spent at least some of their childhoods in a two-parent middle-class family. As adults, they are at a higher risk of becoming single parents themselves and having children with two or more partners. In short, multiple-partner fertility, family instability, and poverty all appear to be passed into future generations.

Predictably, the complex-family income gap parallels an education gap. Men with bachelor’s or graduate degrees are considerably more likely to be living with their biological children than less educated men. In one study, 64 percent of male participants with a high school degree or less had a child with more than one partner (almost three-fourths of those births were nonmarital), compared with 36 percent of men with some college. (Interestingly, men having children with more than one partner are neither more nor less likely to be employed than men having children with just one partner.) Men who have spent time in prison are two times as likely to have children by multiple partners.

Along with education and income, race is also part of the complex-family divide; blacks are twice as likely as whites to have children with two or more partners (29.6 percent vs. 14.7 percent). Half of all black children live with a single parent, compared with 28 percent of Hispanics, 18 percent of whites, and 9 percent of Asians. Black men are also more likely to live with a partner’s minor children (16.4 percent) than with their biological child (9.9 percent). Black children are more likely to see their married parents divorce than kids of other demographic groups, which may help explain a troubling trend in the downward mobility of black men.

If higher poverty rates were the only downside of complex families, we could simply make the CTC permanent (as Democrats want) and watch it work its magic. But studies of children in complex families are all but unanimous in finding that instability, whether attached to poverty or not, damages kids in ways that ripple into their adult lives. Children suffer a break with a loved parent, usually a father. Unmarried fathers tend to become less involved with a child after the relationship with the mother ends. When the mother enters a new romantic relationship, the father retreats even further out of the picture. Child-support payments become spotty or stop altogether. The same thing happens when the father finds another partner, especially one with whom he has another child. Nor is a mother’s new partner likely to be considered Father of the Year. Such parents are less likely to spend time with their partner’s kids, or to do the ordinary things parents do with kids, like eat dinner with them or take them to a park or a movie. If stepfathers go on to have a biological child of their own with the mother, they often lose interest in their stepchild.

More worrying still, sexual and physical abuse are more common in homes with an adult male biologically unrelated to the children. In complex families, shared custody between biological parents—the enlightened answer to the daddy problem created by divorce and separation—is, well, complex. The chemistry between new spouses and siblings can be toxic, and visitation can be fraught for both logistical and emotional reasons. Parents or their new partners may need to move to new cities for a job, for extended family needs, or just to start over. Weekend scheduling is hard enough for intact families, with extracurricular activities and family birthdays; try adding another child in a separate household with another set of siblings and some stepparents.

Researchers studying children who are coping with family turmoil of this sort see behavioral problems identical to those they find when they study poor children. Several studies have found that children in elementary school who have experienced two “transitions”—a separation, a re-partnering, the introduction of stepsiblings—are not only more impulsive and aggressive than kids who experience no family disruptions; they also have lower grades and achievement scores. The family-go-round, to use sociologist Andrew Cherlin’s phrase, has been associated with lower verbal ability, attention-deficit problems, and poorer overall school readiness. Multiple-partner fertility was “robustly related” to delinquency and other behavior problems at age nine, regardless of whether a mother was married at that time. In later childhood and adolescence, having a parent with children from multiple partners correlates with early sexual activity and pregnancy. Studies have found a “dose effect” for transitions—that is, the more transitions a child experiences, the more the child’s risk grows. More surprisingly, perhaps, studies show that kids react to new stepsiblings in the household by becoming more aggressive—and that’s apart from the effect of the mother’s or father’s new partner. A child whose parents have divorced and whose mother remarries may be at higher risk of negative outcomes, but a child whose mother has another child after remarrying is at higher risk still.

Several theories, some overlapping, look to explain why the family-go-round is so hard on kids. The kids could be simply reacting to their mothers’ own stress and depression, both of which are more common among women with children by multiple partners. It makes sense that a mother preoccupied by a missing child-support check, the excitement of a new romance, or a stepchild’s temper tantrums would become less emotionally available to her own child. Another theory has it that complex families scramble conventional roles and norms, leaving children disoriented and anxious about whom they can count on and for what. When a new male partner with his own child moves in with a mother and her biological child, it confuses understandings of parent-child relationships, discipline, routines, and care. Adults themselves are in new, unregulated territory. Should a mother expect her partner to be a substitute father to her child, a friend, or more of a roommate? Should he discipline a child for cursing him out—and how? What kind of support should she expect from the extended family of her child’s father if he’s no longer living with her, especially once he has a new partner and child? And what are a stepfather or new partner’s financial responsibilities to his new family? The questions proliferate when a new family forms, but the answers are elusive.

A related, evolution-influenced theory rests on the assumption that the young of all species are wired to adapt to their environment. When that environment is unpredictable, they develop strategies that may not work in a more reliable ecosystem. Children whose family attachments and household arrangements are volatile have no reason to trust routines or develop the kind of foresight that might lead to a better future. That explains the impulsive and aggressive behaviors researchers find in kids from complex families. If life throws dangerous curveballs at you no matter what you do, why not have sex without a condom with the girl you met last week, steal that bike you want, or punch out a guy who has been bothering you? “The lesson of an unpredictable environment is that if the future is more rather than less uncertain, then efforts to mitigate risk are less likely to pay off in terms of enhancing reproductive fitness,” observes psychologist Jay Belsky and coauthors in a paper on unpredictable childhoods and their relation to early pregnancy. “After all, efforts toward such ends take time, effort and, critically, energy, so if such investments are less likely to generate anticipated payoffs, as would be the case in more rather than less unpredictable environments, then parents should adjust their rearing accordingly. The same goes for children when it comes to regulating their own development.”

Can the extra income promised by the CTC change the life trajectories of kids in complex families? An optimist might argue that more money will lower stress levels in the household and improve the chances that parents will stay together. This could be true in some cases. But we have little reason to believe that lifting people from poverty to near poverty—the most realistic outcome—will solidify most parents’ relationships or lessen their all-too-human longing for a new partner and another baby. In fact, multi-partner fertility is more cause than effect of money woes. “[R]elative economic well-being is not predictive of a birth to a second partner,” Lindsay Monte, a scholar at the Census Bureau, writes in a recent paper. “However, women are subject to significantly greater economic stress after the transition into multiple partner fertility.”

Helping struggling families keep their refrigerators stocked and their rent money paid may be the humane and socially beneficial thing to do. But the same goes for giving kids as much family stability as possible so that they can develop the strengths they need to meet the challenges of adult life. There’s no silver-bullet policy solution for that one.

Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images


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