Recent census data showing continuing and dramatic changes in U.S. family structure have alarmed some conservative groups, but these protests are sure to be small ripples in the overall reaction.
The data highlighted several key developments which have formed over the past four decades: For the first time, less than a quarter of the households in the United States are made up of married couples with children (in 1960, they accounted for 45 percent of all households); the number of Americans living alone, 26 percent of all households, surpassed, for the first time, the number of households married with children; households composed of unmarried partners, and the number of families headed by women with children, have become strikingly more common than in previous decades, both growing nearly five times as fast as the number of households overall.
The new data offer a glimpse into the shifting and complicated makeup of American families, and what its implications may be for the future. In particular, the increase in single-parent and “cohabiting” households is an indicator of deeper societal problems.
Several new books on the new American family show the increased risks faced by the 38 percent of U.S. kids who live with split-up or never-married parents: “They are less healthy than those of married parents, [being] far more likely to die in infancy and later suffer poorer physical and mental health than children of married parents. They receive less education and do more poorly in school than those of married parents, potentially perpetuating their childhood economic hardship into adult life. They are less likely to get and stay married as adults, potentially repeating for their own kids the negative cycle they faced” (USA Today, May 16). As David Popenoe, a Rutgers University sociologist who heads the National Marriage Project, stated, “Young pre-marrieds are kind of shell-shocked from their own families.”
The fact is, far fewer of today’s children grow up in stable, two-parent homes than did a few decades ago. This means that far fewer children are being provided with healthy examples to learn how to function in their own marriages and families in the future.
It is consequently difficult to imagine, despite all the welfare, daycare and other social reparation programs that have mushroomed in recent decades, that many of today’s youth will be adequately educated in marriage and family skills to form a solid foundation for our families and the nation in the next generation.