Rising divorce and remarriage rates mean that an increasing number of children are growing up in reconstituted households, those formed by a couple and at least one non-common child (i.e. a child who is from a previous relationship). Children in reconstituted households tend to have poorer academic outcomes and experience lower well-being compared to children in intact households. Studies also indicate there is an increased risk of poverty among children in reconstituted households, which may be the result of several factors. Reconstituted households may be poorer, or they may have different resource sharing strategies or preferences with regards to expenditure allocation. The poverty literature suggests that the association between divorce and poverty is bi-directional: economic stress increases the probability of divorce, and divorce adds to the risk of poverty for disadvantaged households. Equally, there is some evidence that cohabiting and married couples with non-common children are less likely to pool their resources compared to those with common children only. Reduced pooling is likely to have an impact on children’s access to resources, particularly where only one of the members of the couple (usually the woman) identifies as a parent to the children in the household. Furthermore, non-parent adults may be less willing to prioritize the needs of children to whom they are not directly related by blood.
In a new study, Alba Lanau (Centre D’Estudis Demografics) takes advantage of a special module in the European Survey on Income and Living Conditions for 22 European countries to examine intra-household inequality between children and adults in reconstituted and intact couples. It addresses the following questions: Do reconstituted households show different patterns of resource allocation than intact households? How does it intersect with gender? And finally, are there geographical variations in the observed patterns? One of the challenges of studying reconstituted households is sample size. To explore differences between reconstituted and intact households with children, European countries are grouped in three areas that share historical and economic characteristics: Western Europe, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe.
Results indicate that children in reconstituted couple households are more likely to be deprived (i.e. unable to cover a range of needs) than children in intact households. The data does not allow to assess to what extent increased economic vulnerability in these households predates divorce or separation. The differences between intact and reconstituted households are particularly stark in Eastern Europe where one in two children in reconstituted households are deprived, compared to one in four of those in intact households. However, there is no evidence that reconstituted households are less likely to prioritise children’s needs. In fact, the descriptive results suggest that reconstituted households have higher rates of adult-only deprivation compared to intact households, although the difference is not statistically significant. Overall, the high deprivation among children in reconstituted households reflects the higher incidence of poverty among those households, rather than differences in resource allocation. Women are somewhat more likely to be deprived compared to their partners, but the differences are small. Equally, there is no evidence of an additional gender or parenthood penalty in reconstituted households.
The increase in the proportion of children growing up in reconstituted households may result in an increase in child poverty as these households tend to be poorer. On the other hand, the fact that households prioritise children when making spending decisions suggests that income transfers, such as child benefits, are an effective child poverty reduction strategy for both intact and reconstituted households.