The nuclear family takes a hit

Census data deals a blow to an American icon -- and the conservative groups that promote it.

Published June 7, 2001 7:23PM (EDT)

We all know what the nuclear family looks like: It looks like a cliché, a fond and fuzzy cliché evoked by episodes of "Leave It to Beaver" or "Ozzie and Harriet." These potent icons are faded and fictional, not to mention completely overwhelmed by general cultural consensus and demographic studies. Yet the "ideal" American family -- a father and a mother, bound to each other by legal marriage, raising children bound to them by biology -- is a stubborn relic, a national symbol that has yet to be retired as threadbare and somewhat unrealistic.

Everything has changed: In the past three decades the rates of divorce, single parenting and cohabitation have risen precipitously. And these developments come from a generation of people who were born and raised to count marriage and parenthood as important milestones of successful adulthood. In other words, Americans seem to have left the nuclear-family model behind -- despite the persistent belief of their elders that it is the blueprint for happiness and moral rectitude.

Yet when the idea of family is addressed in a political context (and Americans, despite our reputation as rugged individualists, still insist that our private lives are political), a dichotomy arises, usually along partisan lines, between abstract notions of an ideal American family and the real families that the majority of Americans actually live in.

At no time has this enormous gap between thought and deed been as visible as when U.S. Census figures came out recently that documented the extent to which Americans are not practicing what some among us still preach. The nuclear family, according to the numbers, is fast becoming a demographic oddity; the number of single-parent families is skyrocketing and many Americans couples are choosing to not get married but to have families anyway.

What then happens to the purveyors of "family values," to the conservative organizations that view Americans who live as single parents, unmarried partners or blended, gay and lesbian families as problematic, or even immoral?

It looks as though many of the proponents of family values as defined by a seemingly mythological standard are responding to the census figures in two ways. First, they seem to have made a distinct rhetorical shift. Rather than preaching the absolute authority of God, many of these groups now invoke the (relative) authority of social science to argue for the preservation of the nuclear family. At the same time, however, they cling to the idea that what is "right" is worth fighting for, regardless of the statistics, and in this crusade, conservatives are finding support in certain quarters, including the White House.

Those who wish to hark back to the nuclear family -- which reached a peak of 45 percent of the American population in 1960 -- face formidable odds of success. The most recent census figures show that, for the first time, the percentage of Americans living in nuclear families has declined to below 25 percent of the population. (As this figure represents married couples living with children, it also includes blended families, so the percentage of married couples living with their biological children is presumably lower.)

We also know that young adults are delaying marriage and children (the average age of women at first marriage is now 25, up from 20 in 1960; for men it is now 27, up from 22 in 1960), if they marry at all. Twenty-six percent of Americans live alone, outnumbering those who live in nuclear families. Americans are much more likely to live together outside of marriage -- unmarried couples now constitute 9 percent of all unions. Single parents are the fastest-growing group of people with children; during the 1990s, the number of single-parent families grew five times faster than the number of married couples with children. The number of families headed by single fathers, while still low, doubled from 1 percent of all households in 1990 to 2 percent in 2001.

In other words, Americans have redefined the American family. And any political organization that wants to get enough votes to keep candidates who support their platforms in office must grapple with the reality that the majority of Americans -- and American voters -- do not live in traditional families.

Nancy Folbre, an economist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the author of "The Invisible Heart: The Economics of Family Values," says that if conservative groups want to reach out to Americans, they must finally revise their definition of family.

"The positive thing that conservative groups have done is to emphasize the importance of committed relationships and the involvement of both parents in raising a child," says Folbre. "But the fact is that people can do that without being legally married. If what they decide to do is emphasize these values, not the demographics of the families in question, they will survive. But if they insist on this notion that only people who are married with children meet this criteria, they will find themselves obsolete."

The initial response to the census figures tended toward the obsolete model, with a spokesperson for the conservative Family Research Council insisting that "this data shows we need to regain the importance of marriage as a social institution. People are disregarding the importance of marriage and the importance of having a mother and father who are married."

A later response from the Heritage Foundation feels equally stubborn, even desperate, in its fuzzy analysis of the numbers and "life cycles." Explained Kirk Johnson, a senior policy analyst at the conservative think tank: "The nuclear family is not necessarily a minority. You have to take into consideration people's life cycles. People between the ages of, say, 40 and 60 may not be living with their children in the house, but they may have lived in a nuclear family at some point during their lifetimes."

But other conservatives seem to have a more circumspect view of the statistics, one that indicates a beleaguered acceptance of the numbers but renewed conviction about the "problems" those numbers suggest.

"I have no reason to question the accuracy of the statistics," says Ed Vitagliano, news editor of the journal for the conservative American Family Association, "but I do think that the culture as a whole understands that the family is important. It's easier to get a divorce now than it was 35 years ago, but I don't think people are comfortable with that. I think we have an awareness that something is wrong if families are disintegrating. Even for people who get a divorce, I think there is an underlying fear about the disintegration of the family, and a desire to live in a stable family."

Interviews with others at the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council, as well as the American Family Association, a Christian organization based in Mississippi, reflect further softening of rhetoric in recent weeks. None of these conservative groups condemn those who live in nontraditional families (perhaps because 75 percent of the voting public falls outside of the category of the nuclear family in one way or another). Instead, their responses make reference to respect for personal choice, to the best interests of children, to the acceptance of the reality of people's lives -- while still promoting an ideal version of family life.

"I think it's very important that as an organization, we don't make single parents believe that God doesn't love them or that we don't care about them," says Vitagliano. "I think the church needs to be careful about its message, that in teaching and preaching the ideal, we do not isolate or reject single parents."

Vitagliano says he believes that in a time when people rarely know their neighbors, the church is the ideal institution for aiding single parents, who he says deserve "not only Christian love, but practical love" -- like help with day care, looking in on latchkey children and providing general emotional and practical support.

"I think that even the people involved in a single-parent situation would agree that it is a less than ideal situation," says Vitagliano, "with the exception of the rare Hollywood personalities who wear their single parenthood as a badge of pride. Most people find themselves in that situation because of a divorce, an unwanted pregnancy or because a partner dies. I don't think that people gleefully and joyfully head into single parenthood."

In other words, it may be acceptable to be a single parent, but it is not a good idea to want to be a single parent. In this scenario, we all still believe in the ideal, even if some of us have been barred through life's disappointments from achieving it.

The underlying assumption is that no one consciously chooses to live in what would be considered to be an "alternative family." Instead, we remain uncoupled, or unsuccessfully coupled, or childless or unmarried despite our best intentions. Crucial in this view are the various indications, supported by research, say conservatives, that outcomes for parents and children in alternative families are dire -- or least not what they could be if these people were ensconced in nuclear families.

On May 15, the day that the new census figures were released, the Family Research Council responded with a press release titled, "Marriage Is a Must -- Cohabitants Who Marry Are More Likely to Divorce," which cited (unspecified) studies that show that married couples are less likely to divorce, that marriages last longer than cohabiting unions and that married couples are happier, and their kids fare better, than those who live in cohabiting homes.

Adds Johnson of the Heritage Foundation, "The research shows that having children out of wedlock puts a child at risk for a host of other social problems, and the choices of the parents can stack up against the child. I think that every individual makes choices, but most people would agree that it's bad to be poor, it's bad to have children who are more at risk for criminal behavior, it's bad to have children who are at risk for educational failure. And I think that people recognize that their families will be better off to the extent they can avoid those risks."

But social science is, unfortunately, not absolute in its authority or pronouncements on family structure. As is so often the case when "research" is cited as gospel, one finds that the data and its collector must be scrutinized and evaluated for signs of limitations or manipulation. It's true that some respected studies have shown that the children of divorced or never-married parents are statistically more likely to have problems (usually measured in terms of educational achievement, behavior and discipline).

But at the same time, early studies also suggest that certain nontraditional families -- especially those of single fathers and gay parents -- score as well as or better than intact families in child outcome. In part, this seems to be because of the "exceptional parent" syndrome: It is so difficult to become a gay parent or, to a lesser extent, a single father that the ones who do so are unusually committed to becoming a parent.

"Social science hasn't proven anything," says Barbara Nordhaus, assistant clinical professor of social work at the Yale Child Development Center. "It can't prove anything about family structures, because the one thing we know is that conflict in families is detrimental to children.

"But we don't have any information about family structure," she adds. "We have information about deprivation, poverty, malnutrition, disease, unemployment, drug addiction of parents -- those kinds of things aren't good for kids. But it's not about the structure of the family. That's a prejudice, a bias. And it's more and more of a fairy tale. No one even remembers what the nuclear family was. People think it's a cartoon from the '50s."

Nordhaus also criticizes studies that reportedly reflect what is in the best interest of children -- particularly when it comes to family structure.

"The 'best-interest notion' is totally bogus in this discussion," says Nordhaus. "It's extracted from the legal arena, and even in the legal arena it has caused more confusion than clarity. It has to be translated for each individual child. There is no agreement about a child's best interest -- except in the terms of a child to be protected and loved and wanted and to be part of a family that is not intruded upon by the state. But it doesn't really advance the discussion at all; it's just a smoke screen, really, for these people to fill in what they want to fill in and claim that they are only acting in a child's best interest."

The argument for marriage and against divorce was bolstered last year by books by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher -- "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially" -- and Judith Wallerstein -- "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce," an exhaustive 30-year study of the effects of divorce on children. Both books seemed to lend credence to the argument that social experimentation has weakened American families in qualitative ways. But both authors have been criticized for their sample size, their methodology and, in Wallerstein's case, the fact that she was working with a self-selected group from her own practice.

Indeed, the factor that makes Wallerstein's work so compelling -- the longevity of the study -- may also be the factor that renders the work obsolete for this generation of parents. In the three decades covered by Wallerstein, divorce went from being something that good families rarely or never did to being something that 50 percent of all married couples did. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the first generation of parents and children who lived through divorce and single parenting had problems. But what are the outcomes for a generation that has models of healthy divorce to follow?

Jane Mattes, a social worker who founded Single Mothers by Choice in 1981, adds that much of the research showing the disadvantages of being a single mother is flawed because it fails to differentiate between children of never-married mothers and those who have the additional baggage of having gone through a divorce or the death of a parent.

She also points out that certain studies have indicated positive outcomes for children of single parents, including better scores on standardized tests. This may be affected by the education and income of the single parents, but professional, middle-class single mothers are one of the fastest-growing segments of single mothers: Between 1990 and 1998, the proportion of never-married managerial and professional women who became mothers grew by 51.7 percent.

Regardless of the research -- its paucity and its controversial methodology -- conservative groups have not given up the battle to promote a narrow vision of the ideal family, and they are finding institutional support in their quest.

The conservative solutions are familiar. In fact, many have been tried -- without success: Eliminate the marriage penalty, educate people on the values of marriage and continue to reform welfare in such a way that it rewards people for getting married and creates more difficulties for single parents.

The Bush administration and members of Congress -- including members of the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over renewing welfare funds -- are looking at mandatory marriage incentive programs, especially those that privilege two-parent families over single-parent families, a key goal explicitly stated in the 1996 welfare reform bill.

The programs under consideration by the Bush administration range from those that promote marriage as an ideal -- such as "marriage promotion" programs (like the ones tried, to negligible effect, to combat epidemic divorce rates in the Bible Belt) to mandatory marriage education programs in high schools (which have already been tried in Florida). Robert Rector, a senior researcher at the Heritage Foundation, has reportedly called for direct cash payments of up to $5,000 to be paid to women at risk of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, to be dispersed at the rate of $1,000 a year for each year that they remain married.

There is little evidence that these kinds of programs, many of which have been tried on the state level, actually produce satisfactory results. If anything, the new census figures provide the best argument against them. Whether Americans are choosing to explode the nuclear family or are simply finding themselves in nontraditional binds, the numbers tell a new story: We are not what we once were. We may never be "ideal" again.

By Amy Benfer

Amy Benfer is a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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