Journal Issue: Immigrant Children Volume 21 Number 1 Spring 2011
Why Children's Living Arrangements Matter
Children depend on their families, who are at the center of their everyday life. Although children's families are not necessarily restricted to those who live in their households, the household is the site of daily activities and typically is the unit that provides most of their resources. Consequently, disparities in children's outcomes are rooted in their divergent family circumstances.
Living arrangements may be particularly important in shaping the ways in which immigrants and their children are integrated into the social and economic life of the United States. Key features of living arrangements include parental marital and residential status as well as the presence or absence of grandparents, other relatives, or nonrelatives in the household. Many immigrant families are poor, face discrimination, and have limited access to resources because of their legal status, yet these problems may be offset for children to some extent by benefits associated with their household and family structures, such as living in a two-parent family. A significant finding in this regard is that children of immigrants are more likely to live in two-parent families than their co-ethnic counterparts who have native-born parents.5 Not only do two-parent families fare better economically than single-parent families, but also children living with both biological parents are less likely to experience a range of cognitive, emotional, and social problems that have long-term consequences for their well-being.6
Some children of immigrants live in extended families, although patterns of family extension vary widely by parental duration of residence in the United States. Although not specifically focused on children, some research shows that recent immigrants are more likely than more settled immigrants to live in extended families. Such arrangements more often involve lateral extension (for example, co-residence with a relative in a similar stage in the life course, such as a sibling) than vertical extension (co-residence of adults with their parents) because immigrants often leave older family members behind in the country of origin.7 Living in a laterally extended family may offer some benefits to individuals or families, although the choice of such a living arrangement may be driven more by the short-term instrumental needs of recent immigrants than by its potential long-term benefits. To the extent that extended-family living arrangements are unstable or are an indirect indicator of hardship, they may not benefit children over the long run.
In what ways do children's living arrangements influence their short-term and long-term well-being? Researchers conclude unequivocally that single-parent families have markedly higher child poverty rates than married-parent families, both for children as a whole and within different racial and ethnic groups. Cohabiting-couple families generally have child poverty rates between the two. Explanations for these differences include the number of potential adult earners in the household, the frequent failure of noncustodial parents to provide child support, and economies of scale for parents living together.8 Whether the link between family structure and family resources is causal is a matter of debate. Skeptics suggest that men and women with the greatest earning potential or resources are most likely to marry, while those with intermediate earning potential are most likely to cohabit and those with low earning potential are most likely to become single parents. Studies that make rigorous attempts to control for such self-selection into those three family types find evidence that family structure has causal effects on family income. From the point of view of children, however, the debate is largely academic. For them, what is important is that living with two married parents generally results in a higher standard of living and access to more opportunities than living in other arrangements.
The role of extended-family living arrangements in child poverty is less clear, both because researchers have paid it less attention and because of analytical complexities related to different types of extension, assumptions about income pooling, and potential variation by race and ethnicity or by whether parents are native- or foreign-born. Nonetheless, by assuming that the incomes of all household members are pooled, one recent study showed that the economic standing of children living with single mothers (those with no spouse present) was substantially better when they were living in extended families than when no other adults were present in the household.9
Beyond their impact on children through economic resources, living arrangements may shape child outcomes through their influence on family stress, the availability of adult supervision and attention, and the quality of parenting.10 Burdened with both economic and time challenges, single-parent families tend to be less effective at parenting and to be subject to greater stress than two-parent families are. In addition, children in single-parent or cohabiting families must often undergo more family transitions than those in married-couple families. Extended-family living arrangements may compensate for some of the difficulties faced by single parents or other overburdened families. By providing child care or helping with household tasks, extended-family members may ease family stress and ensure that children's needs are met, thereby making child outcomes more positive. Some studies, however, indicate that parents who live with extended kin often are those least able to care for themselves and their children—and this may be the case in immigrant families. Complex living arrangements may be most common among recently arrived immigrants, who need help as they adapt to life in the United States. Extended-family members may band together as a survival strategy, but such households may be unstable and provide few resources for children.11