Alternative Families Create Challenges for State Laws

by | October 27, 2014

By Teresa Wiltz

The Great Recession walloped almost every segment of American society. Millions lost their jobs, homes and businesses. Families lost trillions in household wealth. But a new study by a U.S. Census demographer finds that one group was hit hardest by the big downturn: "multiple-partner fertility" families, or families in which a woman has conceived children by more than one man.

The number of families with multiple-partner fertility, or MPF, is growing across all class and education levels. But they are more likely to be poor, uneducated and minority. They are people who have started life with significant disadvantages _ and they tend to stay disadvantaged.

The complexity of their lives poses interesting challenges for state policy. A few state legislators are just starting to grapple with how to best help these families, from tweaking child support requirements to encouraging fathers' involvement in their children's lives.

The census study, conducted by Lindsay Monte earlier this year, found that MPF families spent significantly more time in poverty during the downturn and relied on food stamps much more than single-partner families did. "MPF families did experience disproportionate difficulties during the Great Recession," wrote Monte, a demographer with the Census Bureau's Fertility and Family Statistics Branch. (These families were not more likely during the recession to rely on welfare payments such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the study found.)

MPF families have been around forever, largely the result of divorce and remarriage. But the phenomenon is growing across the U.S. as fewer Americans decide to marry, a trend that is particularly pronounced among millennials. More than half of all births to parents under age 35 are outside of marriage. Twenty-eight percent of all U.S. women with two or more children have children by different men, according to Cassandra Dorius, assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University.

"Today, we postpone marriage, but we don't postpone children. That's different from 50 years ago, when you got married and then you had your kids. That's not the case anymore," said Dorius, who conducted a national study of women at or near the end of their childbearing years to assess the impact of multiple-partner fertility on their lives.

Elizabeth Peters, director of the Urban Institute's Center on Labor, Human Services and Population, said multiple-partner fertility puts kids in households that are more chaotic, and sometimes makes contact with the noncustodial parent more difficult. That makes it less likely they will receive the kind of parental investment that will help them grow into productive, happy adults. "These kids are just inherently more disadvantaged. That's a policy issue. I don't know what the policy solution is. You can't legislate how people build families."

Researchers first began studying multiple-partner fertility in 2005, almost by accident. They started out by exploring how some men "swap families" after they have a child with a new partner. These men sometimes limit their financial support of their previous children or stop spending as much time with them. They also might limit involvement with their children that live elsewhere when their ex-partners move in with or marry someone new.

Most of the emerging research is on the lives of mothers who bear children by more than one man, rather than on the fathers who have children with more than one woman. The vast majority of MPF women in their late 20s and early 30s live with all of their children, while the vast majority of MPF fathers do not live with all of their children, according to research conducted by Karen Guzzo, associate professor of Sociology at Bowling Green State University.

MPF is more common among minority women, with 59 percent of African-American mothers, 35 percent of Hispanic mothers, and 22 percent of white mothers reporting having children by more than one partner. But the issue is less tied to race than it is to class, Dorius said. Black families are more likely to be poor, for example, and African-American men experience a much higher incarceration rate than any other racial or ethnic group, leading to a shortage of available men.

"Very rich women and very educated women also have children with more than one man," Dorius said. "This isn't necessarily a racial story. (MPF) is really concentrated in early disadvantage and in America today, that's caught up in race."

According to Dorius, women who conceive children with multiple partners often get pregnant at a younger age and are not living with their partner when they give birth. They are also less likely to have support from their families, have less access to child care and report poorer quality relationships, according to Dorius.

MPF mothers also have more health problems and depression as they reach middle age. Stress tends to breed more stress: Young couples faced with early parenthood are at risk for breaking up and meeting someone else, and then having children with their new partners.

MPF impacts families across generations as well. Teens growing up in a home with half-siblings are more likely to use drugs and start having sex earlier than other children, according to Dorius.

"These children have to juggle across households. Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, every holiday" is complicated," Dorius said. "It makes family life really confusing. You can imagine a scenario where you have a mother and a father living together and with one child, he's the (biological) father and with the other, he's the stepfather. It makes for really complicated family life."

Family scholars are trying to uncover whether having children with more than one person magnifies inequalities over the course of the mothers' lives, Dorius said.

The higher your educational level, the more likely you are to have a child while married _ and stay married. Couples faced with economic insecurity are less likely to want to stay together or marry, according to Arielle Kuperberg, assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"It makes it harder for people to plan for the future; it makes them less willing to settle down. Marriage is something that happens after they achieve financial stability. In the past, marriage was the path to financial security," said Kuperberg.

Stateline | Nonpartisan, Nonprofit News Service of the Pew Center on the States | editor@stateline.org  |  @pewstates