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Children's household instability

How Much Household Instability Do Children Experience While Growing Up?

Kelly Raley, Inbar Weiss, Robert Reynolds, and Shannon E. Cavanagh

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While most studies of children’s family changes and instability have focused on changes in mothers’ marital and cohabiting relationships, other adults and children entering or leaving households also contribute to changes in who children live with. Prior research has shown that over one in three children live in households with extended family members. Children are more likely to experience an extended family member enter or exit their household than they are to see a parent or parent’s partner come and go.

Family instability, often defined as family changes due to mothers’ divorce and remarriage or cohabitation, is associated with – and is likely a cause of – poorer child outcomes. Including other familial and household changes, such as siblings being born or siblings growing up and leaving the household would capture more of the changes that children experience. Moreover, many children move during childhood, with some experiencing residential instability that may or may not result from changes in the household composition. Similar to parental divorce and remarriage, these changes can be stressful, disrupt routines, and alter the resources available to children.

Family and household experiences vary substantially across social class and by race/ethnicity. In the 1980s, divorce rates for college-educated women fell but remained high for women with only a high school diploma. And while all women are delaying marriage, increases in the age at marriage and the percentage who never marry are much higher for less-educated women. Having children outside of marriage has also increased substantially, particularly for less-educated women and among black and Hispanic women. Black and Hispanic women are also less likely to marry and more likely to divorce than non-Hispanic white women.

In addition, racial bias among landlords and other discriminatory practices limit the ability of families headed by minorities to obtain secure housing in desirable locations. Renters in poor urban neighborhoods also face high rates of residential instability because of forced relocation. Thus, disadvantaged groups not only experience greater marital instability but also more residential instability.

All told, previous research shows that—when focusing on changes in mothers’ marital or cohabitating relationships—children whose mother is less educated or who is a member of racial or ethnic minority are more likely to experience family and residential instability than children whose mother is more educated or is non-Hispanic white.

The authors use data from the 2008 Survey of Income and Program Participation to expand the description of children’s household composition and stability. They include sibling, grandparent, and other compositional transitions as well as residential instability. They also produce estimates of household instability by race/ethnicity and parental education.

Key Findings

  • Children’s experience of household instability is much more frequent than previously documented. Whereas children experience an average of about 1.2 parental transitions into or out of their household while growing up, they experience 4.8 changes in household composition and 6.8 total changes when residential moves are included. See Figure.
  • Levels of both residential and compositional instability are higher for children with less educated mothers and for race/ethnic minorities. Children with college-educated parent(s) experience about 4.1 transitions while growing up, compared to 9.0 for children whose parent(s) have less than a high school degree.
  • Black children experience especially high levels of residential instability.

More children experience household instability throughout childhood than previously thought and parents contribute to only a small proportion of that instability

College of Liberal Arts

This caption describes the image above.

This figure [1] shows that, overall, children average 6.8 cumulative household changes between birth and age 18. Of these changes, 4.8 are compositional changes and 3.4 are due to a change of address. The sum of composition changes is greater than 6.8 because >1 change can occur simultaneously. Siblings and other relatives entering or leaving the household account a larger proportion of household composition changes than do parents. The sum of the components (5.8) is more than the overall composition change (4.8) because >1 change can occur simultaneously.

Policy Implications

Children’s family lives often deviate from the idealized nuclear family form and are more dynamic than previously realized. In order to limit the potential negative effects of instability, institutions, such as schools, need to be flexible to respond to variability across students and over time in children’s household structures.

High rates of residential instability may contribute to lower educational performance and may be a source of racial disparities. Policies to address racial (particularly black-white) inequalities in access to stable housing could help to reduce such residential instability.


[1] Raley, R.K, Weiss, I., Reynolds, R. & Cavanagh, S.E. (2019). Estimating children’s household instability between birth and age 18 using longitudinal household roster data. Demography 56:1957–1973.

Suggested Citation

Raley, R.K, Weiss, I., Reynolds, R. & Cavanagh, S.E. (2019). How much household instability do children experience while growing up? PRC Research Brief 4(12). DOI: 10.26153/tsw/5801. 

About the Authors

Kelly Raley (kelly.raley@mail.utexas.edu) and Shannon E. Cavanagh are professors of sociology and faculty research associates in the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, Inbar Weiss is a PhD candidate in sociology and a graduate student trainee in the PRC, and Robert Reynolds is a senior database administrator in the PRC.


This research was supported by Grants P2CHD042849, Population Research Center, awarded to the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin; and R03HD090425, Children’s Family and Household Experiences (Raley PI) by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.