Sara McLanahan is the William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs at Princeton University. She directs the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing (which she founded in 1996) at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Office of Population Research at Princeton. She has also served (since 2004) as Editor-in-Chief of The Future of Children, an interdisciplinary journal designed to provide research evidence to support the development of programs and policies to improve the well-being of children. She served on the Board of the Population Association of America 1992-1994, as Vice President 1999-2000, and as President in 2004.
Sara is a leading scholar of family demography, inequality, and social policy, who has profoundly shaped our understanding of the nature, causes, and consequences of contemporary family change. She has written or edited five books and over 100 scholarly articles. Among her most influential work is her 1994 book co-authored with Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps, which was the first major study using national data to examine the effects of divorce for children’s well-being. Having begun this work during the height of the rise in divorce as a skeptic about whether divorce had negative effects for children, her intellectual curiosity and pursuit of the truth led to the seminal finding that father absence was associated with adverse outcomes for children. She has continued to pursue questions about the implications of family structure and change for the next generation using new data and methods as they have emerged.
In the late 1990s, she launched (with Irv Garfinkel) the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal birth-cohort study focused on unmarried parents and their children. This study has followed children (and parents) from birth through adolescence and has become a preeminent resource for understanding how the disconnection between marriage and childbearing has affected a large and growing group of families and children. More than 500 published articles across a range of social science disciplines and applied fields have used the Fragile Families data. Her 2004 PAA presidential address on “diverging destinies” for children highlighted the growing inequality of children’s experiences as a function of different demographic patterns by education and has fostered a new line of research linking family trends and intergenerational inequality.
After receiving her PhD in Sociology from the University of Texas in 1979, Sara spent 13 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she began as a postdoctoral fellow, then became an Assistant Professor of Sociology, rising to the rank of Professor of Sociology. In 1990, she was recruited to Princeton University to become Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. She has served on a wide range of professional boards and advisory committees, and she was an active member of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on the Family and the Economy 1998-2006.
In recognition of her scholarly accomplishments, Sara has received numerous awards and honors, including becoming a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in 2005 and being inducted to the National Academy of Sciences in 2011. Her research and related public service has also had a major impact on public policies designed to support disadvantaged families and on broader societal understanding about family patterns and their implications. Beyond her many achievements, Sara is well-known for being a generous colleague and collaborator, as well as an esteemed and influential mentor to the numerous students and postdocs she has advised.