Surprise: more nuclear families

Census data find the percentage of children living with biological parents increasing to 56 percent.

The nuclear family is staging a comeback.

Between 1991 and 1996, the percentage of American children living with both their biological parents jumped from 51 percent to 56 percent, according to a report released today by the US Census Bureau. The finding, which surprised many researchers, suggests that family relations in the United States may be entering a new era of stability after two decades of tumultuous change.

"It's the single most hopeful finding that I've heard from the Census Bureau in years," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a New York think tank devoted to issues of family and civil society.

"It's unexpected," adds Andrew Cherlin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Increases in family stability are always good news."

Rather than a return to the Ozzie and Harriet days of the 1950s, the new report suggests that changes in family structure are leveling off. For example, in 1990, single mothers were raising 22 percent of the nation's children; by 1996, that share had risen slightly to 23 percent.

This indicates that diverse forms of parenting - from adoption to stepparents - remained prevalent during the mid-1990s. "Although we may see a stabilization of and even a slight rise in the married-parent nuclear families, it's not enough [of a change] that we can afford to ignore these other families," says Stephanie Coontz, cochair of the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit group of researchers based in New York.

Researchers attribute the reemergence of nuclear families to many factors. For one thing, the divorce rate has fallen from its peak around 1980, when there were 5.2 divorces for every 1,000 people; by 1999, the rate had dropped to 4.1.

Also, out-of-wedlock births are leveling off. In 1970, roughly 1 out of 10 births involved unmarried mothers. Although the rate surged to 1 out of 3 in 1994, it has since stayed virtually level.

But family experts caution that the rebound of nuclear families, while real, could be exaggerated by other factors. The economy, for example, may have played a role. Between 1991 and 1996, families' average financial situations improved significantly. Typically, such improvements reduce the number of divorces. By one estimate, every one percentage point gain in the unemployment rate generates some 10,000 extra divorces.

In any case, the rise of nuclear families portends good news for children, researchers say.

"Having the children live with both biological parents is good as long as it's a low-conflict marriage," says Kristin Moore, president of Child Trends, a nonprofit research group in Washington, D.C.

It's the conflict - often present in divorces - that has been found to undermine children's development, she adds.

The trend also suggests smoother sailing for parents. "It's easier in terms of time, and it's easier in terms of economics," says Nancy Rankin, executive director of the National Parenting Association, a nonprofit research and parent advocacy group in New York. "Single parents struggle mightily to do the best for their kids. But it's hard." Two-parent families typically have more resources, she adds.

Despite the rise in the nuclear family, some 44 percent of children still live in other family arrangements. "There's a tremendous diversity in the living arrangements of kids," says Jason Fields, family demographer with the US Census Bureau and author of the new report.

A quarter of all children lived in single-parent households. And 4 percent lived with neither parent. Roughly three-quarters of that last group lived with grandparents or another relative.

The share of children in various living arrangements changes dramatically depending on race and ethnicity. For example, while 84 percent of Asian (and other Pacific Island) children and 79 percent of non-Hispanic whites lived with two parents, only 38 percent of black children did. Just over half of black children lived in mother-only households, twice the share of Hispanic children who did.

"That certainly says something about the economic resources that these children have access to," says Mr. Fields. Usually, one-parent households are poorer than two-parent homes.

The number of adopted children stood at 1.5 million in 1996, up from 1.1 million in 1991. Nearly half lived with two adoptive parents; another third lived with one biological parent and an adoptive parent.

For nearly a century, the nation's family structure remained remarkably stable. In 1880, 83 percent of all children lived in two-parent households, 8 percent lived in mother-only homes, 3 percent in father-only homes, and 6 percent with neither parent.

As late as 1970, 85 percent of children lived in two-parent homes, 11 percent in mother-only homes, 1 percent in father-only homes, and 3 percent with neither parent.

Then in the next two decades, the number of divorces and single-parent households skyrocketed. By 1990, 22 percent of all children lived in mother-only homes - double the rate of 1970. And mothers began to enter the job market in droves. The nuclear family seemed under attack - a notion that may fade if the new trend holds up.

"There was a sense of inevitability about the disintegration of the two-parent child-rearing household," says Mr. Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values. "If nothing else, this shows there's nothing inevitable about the trend."

Adds Ms. Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families: "Parents are beginning to work out these changing gender roles."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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