Methods: The analyses in this paper are based on annual structured interviews with a baseline sample of 531 families with children born in 2004 and 2005, and in-depth, qualitative interviews with 45 families that began in the spring of 2006 and concluded in the fall of 2008. Study questions addressed are the following: (1) What are the living arrangements and household composition of families over time? (2) How do household composition and mobility vary by family characteristics? (3) What are the circumstances in which family transitions occur? (4) What are the correlates of household transitions and service use?
Results: Drawing from mothers' accounts of their daily circumstances over time, we noted that family living conditions are not only shaped by residential mobility, neighborhood environment, and inadequate housing but also by changes in family household composition that are not constrained to the birth of a child or to union formation and disruption. In many ways, the “household” goes beyond a fixed space to include a network of mutually supportive relationships. Mothers may live alternately with parents and partners; children may take turns living with mothers and grandmothers. For many families, economic instability, pregnancy, or poor housing conditions precede changes in household composition. Analysis of both survey and qualitative interviews suggests a complex picture of the relationships between changes in household structures over time and service use. In some cases, these changes were associated with greater use of services; in other cases, they led to decreases in service use.
Implications: These findings have several implications for both practice and future research. One implication is the need to devise a more fluid and inclusive household composition framework that captures the diversity of family living arrangements more accurately. A more comprehensive framework for describing household composition may have implications for our understanding of the type and number of transitions experienced by families. Second, because family life is shaped by ecological and cultural factors, overlooking the circumstances in which family transition occurs undermines our understanding of child well-being. Finally, it highlights that changes in families' living circumstances may affect parenting and may change parents' material and social resources. Service providers need to be flexible in order to accommodate these changes and be responsive to families' changing needs.