13th annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley lecture addresses family instability and complexity

Credit: Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News
Credit: Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News


“Moving the needle on mobility from poverty must include the family contexts into which children are born and raised,” said Kathryn Edin during the 13th annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture at Brigham Young University on Feb. 9. For the event, members of the Hinckley family and the community met in the Hinckley Center Assembly Hall on the BYU campus.

Dr. Edin, who is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University, shared her research and spoke on the topic “Addressing Family Instability and Complexity.”

For the past few decades Dr. Edin has studied relationships among low-income U.S. populations. Much of her research has been about couples having children but choosing not to marry, their fragile romantic relationships and how parenthood is deeply meaningful in their lives.

When looking at young mothers who were having a tough time, not able to make it on welfare or a low wage job due to expenses such as childcare and transportation, Dr. Edin often got the question, “Why did they have those kids in the first place?”

“I was fascinated with these questions,” she said. “I had spent six years running around the country talking to single mothers in their homes repeatedly, living in the community and I had no idea how to answer these questions.”

But, she said, “I knew that the single mothers I’d been hanging out with in Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; San Antonio, Texas; and Boston, Massachusetts well enough to know that they probably had a pretty good answer to this question.”

So Dr. Edin and her family moved to the Philadelphia metropolitan area where she could conduct more research as she tried to figure out the answer to that question. That is where she came to the conclusion that moving the needle on mobility from poverty must include looking at the family contexts in which children are being raised.

Family instability

Family instability is at an all time high in America. Children are growing up in homes with single mothers with multiple “parental figures” with every new relationship their parent is involved.

“We began with the definition of terms relationship instability,” she said. “[It] ensues when a mother and father of a focal child break up and go on to re-partner. If you look at Americans compared to parents in other nations, we love to get together. And we love to break up. And we love to get together again and so on. So we see a high degree of re-partnering so that the parental roster is unstable.”

A child then has multiple adults claiming the role of “mom or dad.”

“This is sort of synonymous with disadvantaged births — births in the bottom 40 percent of the educational distribution,” she said. “What we see here is that in the first five years of life among these 42 percent of births that are non-marital, when this survey was done, it was about a third of births.”

According to Dr. Edin’s research, during the first five years of a child’s life, more than half of the children experience new parental romantic relationships in their fragile family. Only twelve percent see at least one parental transition, 14 percent see two relationships, 13 percent see three relationships and 16 percent see four or more new relationships.

Family complexity

Complexity occurs when half siblings occur based on a parent’s new partnership. Either one of the parents brings a half sibling into the relationship, or half siblings ensue when either a mother or father re-partners and has subsequent children.

“And of course there are also the complicating factors of step-siblings,” she said. “In fact, when I first started studying single mothers I was just focused on the central three figures and wasn’t really aware how complex American families had grown. Now how many children born to unmarried mothers are affected by this level of family complexity?”

According to her findings, Dr. Edin said 60 percent of children will have half siblings in the first five years of their life.

“Sometimes this is mom only, sometimes this is dad only, but … about a quarter of children … have half [siblings] both on mom’s and dad’s side,” she said.

Research shows that 80 percent of children to non-married parents in the first five years experience either instability or complexity — many both.

“And importantly only four percent live stably with a single mother,” Dr. Edin said. “Fifty percent of these kids experience both instability and complexity in the first five years of life and we haven’t even counted social parents, grandparents who may not live in the home but who are involved, … [or] step siblings.”

Dr. Edin pointed out that research is showing that although children do rebound from divorce when parents don’t re-partner quickly, the rate of family change many are seeing in the first five years of their life is “simply overwhelming children’s ability to cope, especially boys.”

With instability and complexity on the rise, Dr. Edin asked what is the process that is leading to such instability and complexity within families.

“There is something going on with the process of family formation that is really different among the disadvantaged as compared to the college educated,” she said. “So what does that look like?”

After interviewing hundreds of people living in different communities, Dr. Edin said she learned that the typical birth to a disadvantaged parent is usually not planned and ill timed. Studies show that the time from the first meeting and first pregnancy leading to a live birth among disadvantaged parents is only six to seven months.

Because the relationships themselves are not fully formed, they are less stable. Middle class, educated couples are now waiting to have children until they “have arrived” professionally and their relationships tend to be more stable.

“So, what would it take to ensure every child can be planned and well-timed?” Dr. Edin asked. “I believe there is evidence that this is achievable.”

Identity projects

One way change will happen is through SPARKS —supported pathways through the arts, recreation and schools, Dr. Edin said.

“SPARKS are things that give adolescents a sense of meaning and identity,” she said. “There is something to be. Sometimes they are vocational, or pre-vocational like Junior R.O.T.C or the Police Explorers, but often you find them in the arts, or in recreation or in hobbies.”

Evidence suggests that positive youth investments can have a dramatic affect on family formation.

“There’s evidence that positive youth development activities can have dramatic impact on family formation and family stability among disadvantaged youth and particularly those boys who are most affected by family instability complexity.”

Sharing examples of youth living in rough conditions, Dr. Edin spoke of how simple hobbies — keeping pigeons, watching anime or being involved in a community program — have helped youth redirect their paths.

Career focused high schools and after school programs have had positive affects on low-income areas.

“Some of these programs have some family formation content, others do not, but what the most effective have is one key ingredient — a strong service learning component where they are out in the community working with the elderly, tutoring kids and so on,” Dr. Edin said.

An interest or hobby — an “identity project” — provide a powerful sense of meaning and identity that is a bridge between where a youth is at the time and their aspirations. Not only do these activities interrupt a “haphazard process of family formation” among low-income communities, they also have a direct effect on mobility from poverty.

“Sometimes we look at problems like family instability and complexity as insurmountable, but they aren’t,” she said. “They require passion, they require well-trained people, … they require faith, they require perseverance. This is not hopeless. And what we need to do now is of course go and try things.”

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