While the scope of research on marriage and family formation has expanded greatly since the 1970s, the basic need to understand how families are doing, what challenges they face, and what helps them thrive will continue to be important. Marriage-related studies have evolved from merely tracking trends, to describing pathways into relationships and parenthood, to analyzing influences on child well-being and informing the Healthy Marriage Initiative. As a result, the field today covers an array of related topics including marriage, the wider spectrum of family structures, fatherhood, community resources, social networks, and the role of policy and programs as they relate to family well-being. There is a growing body of research showing how each domain influences family well-being directly and is vital in its own right. However, in combination they influence family well-being in interactive ways that are still not fully understood, for example how some elements mitigate or magnify the influence of others and how their relative importance varies over the life course.
Policy makers and researchers need to better understand how these dimensions of the family context intersect, and what this implies for developing policies and programs to strengthen families. To help achieve this, we need data that track individuals into relationships and parenthood; examine interactions among family members inside and outside the household; describe family resources, stressors and well-being along multiple dimensions and points in time; catalogue program participation; and capture a wide array of related covariates. In addition, we need data that will allow for examination of the roles and implications of these factors among different understudied populations such as low-income families and racial and ethnic minority groups.
This paper discusses the richness of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 Cohort (NLSY97) for studying these issues, and ways in which its utility for advancing research on marriage and the family could be enhanced. The basis for the recommended improvements comes from the discussion of a panel of experts convened by NORC for the Administration for Children and Families. To put these recommendations into clearer perspective, this paper begins with a review of the promises and current limitations of NLSY97 for studying marriage and family issues and ends with a discussion of first steps one could take in pursuing such enhancements.