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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Wisconsin Study of Family Complexity and Public Policy

Most American children do not spend their entire childhood living with both biological parents, and yet social and family policies are rooted in the era when that was still the case. Contemporary families are much more complex and fluid because of an increasing number of births outside of marriage as well as high rates of cohabitation, parental breakup and divorce, multiple-partner fertility, and shared custody. Complex families are more likely to be socially and economically disadvantaged and rely on public benefit programs to survive. This study develops new innovative methods for capturing in real time the complexity of families today and uses these methods to examine how well our current safety net policies are aligned with the reality of the families that these policies were designed to help.

Co-principal investigators Lawrence Berger, professor of social work, and Nora Cate Schaeffer, professor of sociology, will initiate “The Wisconsin Study of Family Complexity and Public Policy,” a pilot project designed to document the reality of complex families: who lives there, who visits, and how resources are shared. Three interviews over 12 months with 250 Wisconsin mothers in complex families will record the multiple ways they share resources, creating a picture of who lives in the family, how they are related and how they help one another. This pilot study will set the stage for a much larger longitudinal study of family complexity and generate implications for family policies targeting those most at risk.

For example, the study has great relevance to current national food policy. One in five children in the US struggles with food insecurity. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) is among our most important national programs to reduce childhood hunger. This study will provide invaluable policy-relevant data on strategies to strengthen SNAP by examining whether the definition of family used to determine eligibility and benefit level is sufficiently aligned with the reality of today’s complex family structures. More broadly, this study on family complexity will provide much needed data to inform federal policy discussions on how best to align public policies and programs with the realities of contemporary, complex families.

Co-Principal Investigators

  • Lawrence M. Berger
    Director of the Institute for Research on Poverty and Professor of Social Work
  • Nora Cate Schaeffer
    Faculty Director of the University of Wisconsin Survey Center and Sewell Bascom Professor of Sociology


  • Maria Cancian
    Professor of Public Affairs and Social Work
  • Marcia J. Carlson
    Professor of Sociology
  • Daniel R. Meyer
    Professor of Social Work