Recent Child, Adolescent and Family Studies Research


Social Welfare Institutions and Programs

Family Complexity and Child Healthcare

Using data from two health surveys, IPR social demographer Christine Percheski and Sharon Bzostek of Rutgers University are the first to link national data on health insurance coverage and medical care for siblings. Though siblings in most American families are covered by a single health insurance plan, an increasing proportion of children in the United States live in families with complicated family structures and with a mix of immigrant and U.S.-born family members. These are situations in which children in the same family might not qualify for the same coverage. In Social Science and Medicine, the researchers present results showing that when children in the same family have public insurance, through programs such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), while their siblings are either privately insured or uninsured, they are less likely to have a usual source of care than similar children whose siblings are insured under the same type of insurance plan. Since a usual source of care is linked to better healthcare outcomes, Percheski and Bzostek argue that policymakers should consider how to reduce mixed coverage among children in the same families.

Long-Term Effects of Food Stamps

Could access to social safety net programs as children have effects lasting into adulthood? Building upon their previous research, IPR economist Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach and Hilary Hoynes of the University of California, Berkeley examined a cohort of food stamp recipients from 1961–1975, who are now between 30 and 50 years old. They discovered those exposed to food stamps early in life (before age 5) had measurably better health in adulthood. They exhibited lower obesity rates and lower rates of metabolic disorders, such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The benefits also extended beyond health to work outcomes. Interestingly, women who benefitted from food stamps as children were more likely to graduate from high school, earn more, and rely less on the social safety net as adults than those who did not. The New York Times and other media outlets cited the report, and Schanzenbach and Hoynes were sought-after experts during congressional debate over funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the current name of the food stamp program.

Strengthening SNAP

Schanzenbach authored a report, released by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project, that recaps the best available research on food assistance programs. In it, she proposes five policy reforms to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To combat rising obesity and increase consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, she recommends a financial incentive. Previous research has shown subsidizing healthy foods results in more of them being consumed, whereas taxing unhealthy items like sugar-laden beverages is unlikely to prevent people from buying them. Schanzenbach also advises making three adjustments to the benefit formula, largely unchanged since 1978, to better align it with current economic realities. She suggests retaining current safeguards and imposing more flexible time limits on benefits for able-bodied adults with no children. This change reflects the nation’s high rate of unemployment and the hardship that persists for many in the post-Great Recession economy. Her report also details how many of the fears that people have about the safety net program are unjustified. For example, many people believe fraud and trafficking—when SNAP recipients sell their benefits to retailers for cash—is a serious problem. However, the rate of trafficking was only 1.3 percent from 2009–2011, primarily at smaller retailers. The rate at major grocery stores, where most SNAP benefits are used, was less than half of 1 percent.

Effects of School, Life, and Family Contexts

Stress and Sleep in Young Adults

In a 10-year longitudinal study supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the William T. Grant Foundation, IPR psychobiologist Emma Adam explores what differences in stress might mean for teens as they move from high school to college and work. How does stress affect them in terms of depression and anxiety during this transition? In addition to using annual interviews, questionnaires, and diaries to capture changes in the youths’ experiences over time, the researchers also track physiological effects by measuring cortisol, a stress-hormone collected from small samples of saliva, and sleep quality by having them wear wrist-watch-sized “actigraphs.” Adam is examining whether differences in stress exposure, stress hormone levels, and sleep quality can help further understanding of why some adolescents remain emotionally healthy and why others develop depression and anxiety disorders as they negotiate the transition to adulthood. Results suggest that interpersonal stressors and sleeping less are associated with changes in stress hormone patterns across the day and with youth becoming depressed. Even after accounting for the effects of various life events, such as losing a family member, on depression, individuals with higher surges in stress hormones in the morning hours are at increased risk for depression over the next two and a half years, and onsets of anxiety disorders, particularly social anxiety disorder, over the next four years.

Effects of Motherhood on Family Characteristics

In a new project, Percheski investigates how the timing of a woman’s first birth affects her family characteristics and risk of having an income below the poverty line. To estimate the effect of age at first birth, she compares women whose first pregnancy led to the birth of a baby with those who experienced a miscarriage. Preliminary results suggest that women who give birth are not more likely to be poor, but are less likely to have very high incomes.

Intergenerational Mobility

While nearly all research on intergenerational mobility—the transmission of economic and social outcomes such as earnings, occupation, and education across generations—has focused on fathers and sons, economist and IPR associate Joseph Ferrie and Jason Long of Wheaton College remedy this shortcoming by building a multigenerational data set that links grandfathers, fathers, and sons in Britain and the United States since 1850. In one study using this data, they analyze mobility across three generations in each country and characterize the differences in those patterns across two countries. Contrary to previous work, their results reveal that grandfathers mattered in both countries. Even after controlling for a father’s occupation, a grandfather’s occupation significantly influenced his grandson’s occupation, and the effect of high (or low) income in one generation persists for at least two more. In an article published in the American Economic Review, they show that economic mobility in the United States was greater than Britain’s in the 19th century, but by the middle of the 20th century, mobility rates in the United States had decreased and the American and British rates had converged.

Parents’ Technology Concerns

The widespread adoption of social media and other networked technologies by children and teens has prompted concerns about their safety when they go online. Eager to shield children from potential risks, parents—and lawmakers—often respond to online safety concerns by enacting restrictions with little consideration for the discrepancy between parental concerns and actual harm. In the journal Policy and Internet, IPR associate Eszter Hargittai and Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research investigate parental fears. They uncover variation across different population groups. Hargittai and Boyd surveyed more than 1,000 parents of 10- to 14-year-olds, asking questions about their experiences and their fears. Results showed that parental concerns vary significantly by background—notably race and ethnicity, income, metropolitan status, and political ideology. Black, Hispanic, and Asian parents were much more concerned than white parents about certain online safety issues, even after controlling for socioeconomic status (SES) factors and previous experiences with various safety issues. Parents from lower-SES backgrounds were more likely to voice concerns about their children being bullied or becoming a bully. Asian American parents were most fearful about most online safety issues, followed closely by Hispanics. Urban parents were more concerned than either suburban or rural parents about every online safety issue explored. Hargittai, who is the Delaney Family Research Professor, and Boyd hope their findings will encourage researchers to examine the effectiveness of fear-based policies and encourage policymakers to consider more diverse perspectives.

Incarceration of Youth and Adults 

Litigation and Reducing Prison Populations

Litigation over prison conditions in the 1970s helped create safer and healthier U.S. prisons. Lawyers and reformers also hoped it would compel states to reduce their prison populations. Since 1980, however, the number of prisoners has increased by 300 percent on average, making the United States the largest jailer in the world. Faced with soaring costs and overcrowded prisons, state policymakers are looking for ways to reduce prison populations. Once again, reformers and lawyers hope that prison-conditions litigation—particularly court-ordered prison population caps— will help states decarcerate. IPR associate and sociologist Heather Schoenfeld examines Florida prison overcrowding litigation from 1973–1993 and ongoing California prison-conditions litigation to reflect on this strategy’s possibilities and limitations. She argues that the legal context, the political context, and the state’s capacity to implement reform have changed significantly between earlier prison litigation and today’s—making it more likely that decarcerative policy reforms will have a lasting impact. Her analysis underscores how small political shifts can quickly undermine criminal justice reform.

Underlying Problems of Delinquency

Each year, between 300,000 and 600,000 youth spend time in juvenile detention facilities around the nation, with a disproportionate number being low-income and minority youth. IPR economist Jonathan Guryan, with Sara Heller and Jens Ludwig of the University of Chicago, is examining the underlying problems behind youth delinquency and violence. Previous research indicates that variation in things such as self-regulation, impulse control, social information processing, and moral reasoning might account for involvement with, and relapses into, delinquency. Using a randomized experimental design and with support from the Smith Richardson Foundation, the researchers have collected data on more than 5,000 male juveniles, most of whom are Latino or African American, entering the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center over 14 months. These youth were randomly assigned to either a typical residential center or one providing a cognitive behavioral therapy intervention to promote improved decision making. The researchers show that the program reduces the likelihood that a detained youth returns to the detention center within a year by about 10 to 15 percent. They also calculate that the program is very cost-effective. Using the point estimate from an 18-month follow-up, they find that the benefits from reduced readmissions—even ignoring any potential crime or schooling benefits—outweigh the costs from between 4 and 8 to 1.

Effects of the Economy on Well-Being

The Great Recession and Fertility Rates

Evidence from previous recessions suggests poor economic conditions can lower fertility rates, especially when joblessness is high. The fertility rate dropped from a recent high of nearly 70 births per 1,000 U.S. women in 2007 to just over 63 in 2012. Percheski and Rachel Kimbro of Rice University are investigating how the decline in fertility varied across communities. They find that women in areas with high unemployment and mortgage foreclosure rates did not become pregnant as often as women in better-off areas. Also, the two researchers are exploring how local economic conditions affect how likely it is for married, cohabiting, and single women to get pregnant. They show that married women were less likely to have a pregnancy when unemployment was high whereas single women had lower odds of pregnancy when mortgage foreclosure rates were high. Cohabiting women’s pregnancy rates did not vary by local economic conditions. Examining fertility rates for single and cohabiting women is important because U.S. nonmarital birth rates are high, and births to unmarried women are associated with lower child well-being and a higher risk for poverty.

Food Insecurity and the Great Recession

Food insecurity spiked dramatically during the Great Recession, with a record 49 million Americans in food-insecure households. With funding from the Russell Sage Foundation, Schanzenbach and her colleagues are determining if families from this period onward have had consistent access to healthy foods and whether family members have skipped meals, gone hungry, or not had enough money to buy food. Their early data show that from 2004–2007, slightly more than 11 percent of U.S. households were classified as food insecure. This rose to nearly 15 percent between 2008–2011. One out of five households with children under 18 is now considered food insecure, with those led by single mothers particularly at risk. While still trying to understand the actual causes behind the food insecurity, the researchers do point to a series of “insults” brought on by dramatic job losses: No income meant no subsidies from the Earned Income Tax Credit. Access to credit dried up, in particular from home equity. Food and energy cost more (though inflation has been low overall), soaking up a larger share of low-income household budgets. When taken together, the unfavorable conditions closed off avenues that the poor typically use to weather bad economic patches.

Poor Families and Food Security

Why are some low-income families with children able to get enough food to feed their families, while other families with similar income levels are not? Schanzenbach is considering this question from three angles with three data sets. Pulling together data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics and the food security supplement of the Current Population Survey (CPS), she and her co-authors are examining how resources, behavior, and prices for families compare with those for families who have a different food-security status. They merged data from the American Time Use Survey with CPS data to understand differences in how families with varying levels of access to food spend their time working, planning meals, shopping, and cooking. They also investigated differences in eating and spending patterns. Initial results seem to indicate that households cycle in and out of food insecurity and that the mother’s mental health seems to be an important predictor of food security. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided project support.

Childhood Programs and Development

Two-Generation Education Programs

Two-generation initiatives—education programs for low-income, preschool-age children and their parents—are emerging across the United States. Lindsay Chase-Lansdale, an IPR developmental psychologist, continues her work in this area, focusing on these interventions in her own backyard. She and IPR senior research scientist Teresa Eckrich Sommer are assessing a pilot program in Evanston starting in early 2014 in collaboration with the Evanston Community Foundation and supported by Ascend at the Aspen Institute. A mix of community nonprofits and businesses, including Evanston school districts, early childhood education centers, a public library, and a community college, have all partnered with the initiative. The program offers educational, financial, and career guidance for parents and early high-quality education for their children up to age 6 through enrollment in community-partner programs. In helping to develop the Evanston initiative, the two relied on lessons learned from their recent evaluation of the CareerAdvance® Program, a two-generation initiative for approximately 200 families in Tulsa, Okla. It links postsecondary education and career training of low-income parents to their children’s educational enrichment through early childhood education centers. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Administration for Children and Families provided support for the Oklahoma study. Chase-Lansdale holds the Frances Willard Chair and is Associate Provost for Faculty.