, Volume 36, Issue 3, pp 315-325

Shifting family definitions: The effect of cohabitation and other nonfamily household relationships on measures of poverty

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The current official poverty measure compares income to needs within a family. Some have suggested including cohabiting couples as part of this family. Others have suggested that the household be used as the unit of analysis for poverty measurement. I explore issues involved in expanding the unit of analysis, including the stability of cohabiting and other non family household relationships and the degree of resource sharing that takes place among different types of people within households. Instability in households with non family members is not a serious problem for inferring poverty from cross-sectional studies. On the other hand, income from people in non family household roles contributes slightly less to helping other household members avoid financial hardship, implying that non family housemates have a greater tendency to keep income to themselves.

This research was conducted while the author was completing a postdoctoral at the Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the IRP Small Grants Conference, May 3, 1996, Washington, DC. Helpful comments and advice were provided by Barbara Wolfe, David Betson, Kathleen Short, Stacy Furukawa, and anonymous reviewers. I gratefully acknowledge the editorial assistance of Patty Peltekos of the Institute for Research on Poverty. I also thank Phil Cohen and Lynne Casper for allowing me to use their CPS extract for this work. The views expressed in this article are mine, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Census Bureau or the Institute for Research on Poverty.