Supporting Diverse Family Structures Through Social Safety Net Programs

Families do not exist in isolation but are instead deeply connected to the socioeconomic and policy environments in which they live. Changing economic conditions play a key role in how families live and form. For example, research has shown that economic stressors, such as job instability or recessions, can influence family formation, leading to shifts in living arrangementsdelayed marriages, or changes in childbearing behaviors. Historically, some policymakers have promoted the two-parent, married household as a potential solution to poverty, and have often framed this household structure as a way to enhance economic stability for families.

This framing remains at the forefront of ongoing discussions around family structure and child well-being. However, marriage is not equally accessible nor beneficial for all families due to various barriers, including restrictive immigration policies, the rise in mass incarceration, and limited job opportunities. It is also important to recognize that diverse family structures carry their own unique strengths and assets that provide benefits to children.

Diversity in U.S. Families

Historical drivers

Since the mid-20th century, American society has perpetuated the idea that the ideal household is a two-biological-parent, middle-class nuclear family. However, these typically heterosexual male-led, married families have not been the norm for many families since the founding of the United States. Currently, there is no single dominant U.S. family structure. In fact, diverse family composition has always been present in and across households—particularly among families with members who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and those with low incomes. For example, Indigenous families value collectivism and established clan systems, relationships with non-nuclear family members, and ritualistic adoptive relationships. Similarly, for Asian, Latino, and Black Americans, multigenerational households and extended kinship networks that include nonbiological relatives have been a critical resource for family well-being.

Parenting beyond marriage

Communities that are impacted by a historical legacy of harm and systemic barriers related to race, ethnicity, or income continue to form relationships and families through diverse pathways; however, these may not include marriage or a two-parent, male-led household. The notion that married, heterosexual two-parent households are ideal for American families disregards the inaccessibility of this structure and the lack of benefits it may provide for some groups. Furthermore, it ignores the cultural assets and protective factors on which many of these groups draw to thrive and raise families. For many families from marginalized communities, childrearing occurs in a variety of forms that offer unique and critical benefits to children. Below, we review how families have formed recently, with special attention to families with low incomes.

Multigenerational families

Although present since the founding of the United States, multigenerational living—or residing with a grandparent or extended family members—is becoming increasingly more common. There are four common types of multigenerational households: two-generation, three-generation, four-generation, and grandfamilies. Please see our key terms box for definitions. Grandparent co-residence can offer numerous benefits to families, including the opportunity to pass down cultural traditions (e.g., language, family history), shared housing and economic support, and an additional source of care and emotional support for children. Today, multigenerational households are particularly prevalent among BIPOC and immigrant families. For example, 21 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native children live with a grandparent, as do 18 percent of Asian, 17 percent of Black,[1] and 15 percent of Latino children. These numbers are also similar among families with low incomes. Twelve percent of families with low incomes report living with at least one grandparent, and 8 percent report sharing a household with someone other than a grandparent. Furthermore, 18 percent of single parent-headed families with low incomes live with at least one grandparent and 8 percent live with someone other than a grandparent.


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