Dr. McLanahan’s research interests include family demography, poverty and inequality, and social policy. Her research focuses on the causes and consequences of non-traditional family structures. She is the author of Single Mothers and their Children: A New America Dilemma, 1986 (with Irwin Garfinkel), Growing Up with a Single Parent, 1994 (with Gary Sandefur), several edited books, and over 100 articles.

Dr. McLanahan currently directs the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a nationally-representative longitudinal birth cohort study of approximately 5,000 families, including 3,700 unmarried parents and their children. The study is designed to shed light on the health and development of low-income children, the impact of family relationships and dynamics on child wellbeing, and the impact of social policies on family relationships and child wellbeing.

Dr. McLanahan is also editor-in-chief of the Future of Children, a policy journal on children's issues produced by Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. The journal’s latest issue, “Policies to Promote Child Health,” (Vol. 25, No. 1) is co-edited by Janet Currie and Nancy Reichman. Upcoming issues include: “Marriage and Child Wellbeing: Ten Years Later" (Vol. 25, No. 2) co-edited by Sara McLanahan and Isabel Sawhill (available in fall 2015), “Children and Climate Change,” (Vol. 26, No. 1) co-edited by Janet Currie and Olivier Deschênes (available in spring 2016), and “Starting Early: Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3,” (Vol. 26, No. 2) co-edited by Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Lisa Markman-Pithers, and Cecilia Rouse (available in fall 2016).

Dr. McLanahan is currently engaged in three projects: one that examines the effects of the 'Great Recession' on families and children, another that investigates the sources of city differences in children's economic and social mobility, and a third taht examines how the interplay between genetic markers and the social environments shapes child development.