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, "Children and Climate Change," (Vol. 26, No. 1) is co-Edited by Janet Currie and Olivier Deschênes. Upcoming issues include “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), "Social-Emotional Learning (Vol. 27, No. 1) co-edited by Stephanie Jones and Emily Doolittle (available in spring 2017), and "Reducing Justice System Inequality" (Vol. 28, No. 1) edited by John Laub (available in spring 2018).

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 that examines how the interplay between genetic markers and the social environments shapes child development.