Families

Lane Kenworthy, The Good Society
September 2016

In the past half century, the share of American adults who are married has declined, and so too has the share of children who grow up in intact families. This is a problem for both groups.

For adults, having two rather than one in the household enhances economic security and boosts the likelihood of income gains. In the past generation median income has increased only for households and families with two earners. For those with a single earner it has been flat.1 And the risk that unemployment, sickness, or disability will result in significant income decline is much greater among households with only a single adult. As Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam point out, “For the working-class American, who inhabits a more precarious world than the rich or the upper-middle class, family stability is a prerequisite for financial stability.”2

It’s an even bigger problem for children. We have substantial evidence, first marshaled by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur in the mid-1990s and steadily buttressed since then, that children who grow up with both of their original parents tend to fare better on a range of outcomes, from school completion and performance to crime to earnings and income to maintaining lasting relationships. This advantage holds compared to children whose parents never married, who married and then divorced, or who married, divorced, and remarried.3

How much have things changed? Why has this happened? What can we do?

FALTERING FAMILIES

The share of American children not living with both biological parents and the share living in a single-parent household have each increased by nearly 20 percentage points over the past half century, as figure 1 shows.

Figure 1. Children not living with both biological parents at age 16 and children in single-parent households
The data points for children not living with both biological parents are decade averages. Data sources: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series family16; Census Bureau, “Living Arrangements of Children,” table CH-1.

What’s behind this trend? It’s partly due to more married parents splitting up. As figure 2 shows, the divorce rate is a good bit higher now than half a century ago, though it has declined somewhat in recent decades. More important is the increase in having children without being married. Figure 3 shows that the share of kids born to unmarried parents rose from 5% in 1960 to 40% in 2007.

Figure 2. Divorce
Divorces per 100 married persons. Data source for 1910-2008: Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Their Driving Forces,” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2007, figure 1, using Census Bureau data. Data source for 2008ff: American Community Survey, factfinder.census.gov, tables B12503 and B12001.

Figure 3. Children born out of wedlock
Share of children born to unmarried women. Data source: National Center for Health Statistics.

Why have out-of-wedlock births increased? It isn’t due to earlier sex or reduced use of contraception; teen births have declined since 1970. Instead, what’s changed is that fewer women are marrying and those who do marry are waiting longer, as shown in figures 4 and 5.

Figure 4. Nonmarriage
Share of women age 40-44 never married. Data source: Census Bureau.

Figure 5. Age at first marriage
Median age at first marriage for women. Data source: Census Bureau.

Three shifts have combined to delay marriage and reduce its prevalence among American women.4 The first is financial autonomy. Since the 1950s, women have become better educated, more likely to be employed, and more likely to earn enough to live independently. Plus, government benefits allow those with limited labor market prospects to survive without dependence on a husband. So for many women, marriage is no longer a financial necessity. Second, along with this change, and in part because of it, the stigma attached to divorce, to nonmarital cohabitation, and to out-of-wedlock childbearing has dissipated. Third, women’s expectations of partnership and fulfillment have increased. Women are now much less likely to marry, or stay married to, a man who isn’t a good partner.

If marriage were being replaced by long-term cohabitation, we might have little reason for worry. In principle, cohabitation can confer the same advantages as marriage. Look at Sweden. Relatively few Swedish children have parents who are married, but many nevertheless live with both of their biological parents throughout childhood. In effect, cohabitation is a substitute for marriage. The United States is different. More Americans are cohabiting, but most split up. As of the early 1990s (the most recent data I’m aware of), a Swedish child born to cohabiting parents had about a 60% chance that her parents would still be together fifteen years later. Her American counterpart had about a 20% chance.5

THE CLASS DIVIDE

The decline of marriage and of both-biological-parent child rearing in America is much more pronounced among those with less education, as figures 6, 7, and 8 show. These are the children and adults already facing the most difficulty because of low income.

Figure 6. Nonmarriage by education
Share of persons aged 30 to 60 who aren’t married. “HS” = high school. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series marital, educ.

Figure 7. Out-of-wedlock births by education
Share of children born to never-married women aged 15-44. “HS” = high school. Data source: Elizabeth Marquardt, David Blankenhorn, Robert I. Lerman, Linda Malone-Colón, and W. Bradford Wilcox, “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” The State of Our Unions, National Marriage Project and Institute for American Values, 2012, using data from the National Surveys of Family Growth.

Figure 8. Children not living with both biological parents at age 16 by mother’s education
“HS” = high school. Data source: General Social Survey, sda.berkeley.edu, series family16, maeduc.

Better-educated women now place considerable emphasis on a career, so they delay not only marriage but also childbearing, as figure 9 shows. This gives them time to get established and to find the right partner. As a result, among Americans with a college degree or better the decline in family is minimal. They are less likely to marry or stay married than their counterparts of half a century ago, and they are less likely, whether married or not, to remain together throughout their kids’ childhood. But these changes have been minor.

Figure 9. Age at first birth by education
Average age at first birth for women. “HS” = high school. The vertical axis does not begin at zero. Data source: Kay Hymowitz, Jason S. Carroll, W. Bradford Wilcox, and Kellen Kaye, “Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America,” 2013, figure 2, using data from the National Vital Statistics Birth Datafiles.

Among less-educated women, in contrast, age at first childbirth hasn’t increased much. Because this gives them less time to mature personally and to find a partner with whom they are compatible, because the financial prospects of their partners tend to be weaker, because their partners more often have a preference for traditional gender roles, and because the presence of a child can heighten financial and interpersonal tensions, women with less education are less likely than their better-educated counterparts to stay with their child’s biological father. For these reasons, the decline in marriage, in happiness among those who are married, in sustained cohabitation, and in both-biological-parent child rearing is much sharper among the less educated.6

THE FUTURE OF FAMILIES

Will the traditional family unit — two adults in a longstanding relationship, with one or more children — survive? Could it thrive?

Scenario 1: continued family decline

One possible scenario is continuation of the pattern of family decline that we’ve experienced in the past half century. The most relevant indicator is the share of children who grow up with both of their original parents. As figure 1 (above) shows, that fell from 75% in the 1960s to 55% in the 2000s.

If we turn to figure 8 (above), we see that the rise in the share of children who don’t grow up with both original parents has occurred mainly among those with less than a four-year college degree. Among the college-educated, this trend all but stopped after the 1970s. A variant of the decline scenario is continuation of this pattern — family decline among the less-educated coupled with stasis among those who have more education.

Then again, we may have reached the end of the long decline of families. The divorce rate peaked in 1980 and has fallen since, and the share of children born out of wedlock has been flat since 2007 (figures 2 and 3). As a result, the share of children who grow up without both biological parents and the share living with one parent have been flat over the past decade (figure 1).

Scenario 2: family revitalization

A second possibility is a revival of the family. How might this come about? What institutions and policies could facilitate it?

In the previous heyday of the stable family, the middle of the twentieth century, its most common form consisted of an employed male and a homemaker female, with an authority structure favoring the husband. This norm will no longer work for very many couples. Family revitalization hinges on shifting to institutions and policies that conform to the new reality of women’s equal (or superior) educational attainment, desire for employment, and expectation of sharing in housework and childcare.7

Figure 10 shows that among the world’s rich longstanding-democratic nations, some do quite well at ensuring that most children grow up in a two-parent home. However, a number of those countries — Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, and Japan — have accomplished this by holding onto the old male-breadwinner norm. The cost, as indicated by these countries’ position on the graph’s vertical axis, has been a very low fertility rate. Women in these countries have been less willing to have children.8 The United States is at the other end of the spectrum. Americans continue to have plenty of kids, but too many grow up without both parents.

Figure 10. Fertility rate by share of children in two-parent families
Data are for the mid-2000s. Data source: OECD.

Most of the countries that have succeeded in achieving both family stability and reasonably high fertility — including France, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and the Netherlands — are ones in which family norms have shifted in the direction of equality and sharing and in which supportive public policies such as childcare and paid parental leave have been implemented.9

What does this imply for the United States? What, specifically, could move us toward the family revitalization scenario?

In one view, the key to revitalizing family is to revitalize marriage.10 While this may be a worthwhile aim, existing evidence suggests that the impact of proposed efforts is likely to be small.11

Some recommend restructuring government taxes and benefits to more strongly favor marriage, with a special focus on rewarding marriage among couples with low incomes. But improving the financial incentive for marriage was a key aim of the mid-1990s welfare reform, and it hasn’t worked. In fact, AFDC-TANF benefit levels have been falling steadily since the 1970s, with no perceptible effect on the decline of marriage among less-educated Americans.12

Another option is intensive marital counseling sessions and support services for vulnerable couples. The best evidence here comes from the Healthy Marriages Initiative, which ran from 2005 to 2010. A thorough review of the program found no noteworthy beneficial impact.13

A third marriage revitalization idea is an advertising and messaging campaign aimed at shifting the culture, perhaps coupled with enhanced dissemination of information. Similar campaigns helped reduce smoking and teen births. However, marriage is different. We have strong evidence that smoking and teen parenthood are bad for the decision maker. The evidence is less overwhelming that avoiding or exiting marriage is bad for the person doing so. It tends to be bad for children, but it may or may not be bad for the adults. Also, smoking is an activity, whereas marriage is a relationship. A partner or spouse who treats you poorly or cheats on you may be less tolerable than a daily routine without cigarettes.

Focusing on marriage, however well-intentioned, may be misplaced.14 Getting more low-income couples in their teens or early twenties who find themselves pregnant to decide to marry is unlikely to produce many lasting relationships. The shotgun wedding approach worked half a century ago because marriage was a financial necessity for many women and because women tended to have limited expectation of emotional fulfillment or shared decision making in a relationship. This has changed.15 If more couples in that position were to get married these days, there’s a good chance many of them would end up divorced.

An alternative approach to family renewal is to try to get more women with limited education to delay childbirth until their mid-to-late twenties, when they are in a better position financially and have had time to find a desirable partner.16 One way to achieve that is via increased educational attainment. At the moment, many women with little education view their prospects in work as so dim that they are eager to move quickly to what they perceive as the other key source of fulfillment in life: having a child.17 More schooling will improve their opportunity for a decent-paying, fulfilling job and thereby heighten the influence of employment in their calculations about when to have a child.

Greater availability of stable jobs along with higher wages would also help, particularly if supplemented by a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit for those without children. This too would enhance the attractiveness of employment for women with limited education, and it would make more less-educated men attractive as long-term partners or husbands.18

Another strategy for delaying childbirth is more direct. We could achieve some reduction in the incidence of unplanned pregnancy via greater use of long-acting, reversible contraceptives (LARCs) such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants. As Isabel Sawhill explains, these types of contraceptives “change the default from getting pregnant (if you do little or nothing to prevent it) to not getting pregnant until you take deliberate steps to to do so. The beauty of LARCs is that they do not depend on someone making a rational decision in an irrational state. They do not require remembering to take a pill or to get a prescription refilled. They are forgiving of well-documented human frailties (like a desire for sex). As a result, LARCs have been found, in practice, to be about forty times more effective than condoms and twenty times more effective than the pill at reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancies.”19

Is there reason to hope that any of this would work? One encouraging trend is the decline in teen births in recent decades, shown in figure 11. We don’t know exactly why this has happened, but it suggests that progress is possible.20

Figure 11. Teen births
Births per 1,000 women age 15-19. Data source: National Center for Health Statistics.

Finally, convincing a larger share of less-educated Americans to embrace gender-egalitarian values might help.21 Women are already moving in this direction, so many less-educated men may have little choice if they wish to have a long-term family. Gender-egalitarian values may have an additional advantage in promoting lasting relationships. Partnerships based on traditional gender roles can work, of course, but the expectations about contributions are fairly rigid, so there’s greater chance the harmony will be disrupted if, say, the man struggles in the labor market or the woman decides she wants a career. A partnership based on gender-egalitarian expectations is likely to be more flexible — and hence better suited to adapt to the many unexpected changes and challenges life throws at us.

Scenario 3: substitutes for family

If we don’t succeed in revitalizing family, that doesn’t necessarily mean half of America’s kids are doomed. For one thing, it’s conceivable that other stable units, such as extended groups of adults, might replace the traditional family and do a decent job at ensuring income stability for adults and intellectual and social development for children.

Or public policy might take on some of the functions we used to rely on families to carry out. High-quality affordable early education — childcare and preschool — is likely to be especially helpful for families with a single adult or limited labor market capability. Early education allows parents to be employed and very likely helps to reduce gaps in the skills and capabilities of children from different family backgrounds.22

An alternative to early education is a cash grant or tax benefit that would allow a family to either pay for good-quality childcare and preschool or keep one parent at home.23 This is what Finland and Norway do. Since 2008, some municipalities in Sweden also have offered a small home-care allowance. This approach offers parents more choice, but it has two drawbacks. First, it leads mothers to stay out of the labor market longer, which hurts their long-run employment, promotion, and earnings prospects, a problem that could be particularly pronounced in the American context.24 Based on an in-depth study of 160 women with limited education, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas conclude that, because they see their labor market prospects as poor, these women view children as the key source of meaning and fulfillment in their lives.25 Offering a subsidy for staying home might further weaken this group’s labor market attachment.26 Second, for children in less advantaged households, low income tends to be just one of multiple barriers to opportunity. For these children, early education is likely to be more helpful than added household income in boosting capabilities.27

SUMMARY

Families play a vital role in ensuring economic security, raising living standards, and enhancing opportunity. Yet the American family has weakened considerably, mainly among those with less education. Gone are the days when a couple who gets pregnant and has a child in their late teens or early twenties stays together through thick and thin. Expectations of satisfaction from a partnership are higher, the stigma attached to out-of-wedlock birth and divorce has faded, and economic necessity no longer exerts the same influence. Women with college degrees are delaying children until they find a partner with whom they have a decent shot at long-term harmony and happiness. When they have kids, they are now only a little less likely to stay together than their grandparents were. In contrast, many women with less education still get pregnant and have a child before their mid-twenties. Whether they marry the father or not, the relationship seldom lasts. Many of these children do not grow up in a household with both of their original parents.

The keys to altering this trend, and thereby facilitating a revitalization of families, appear to be increases in women’s education, better financial prospects for those at the low end of the labor market, affordable good-quality childcare, and greater spread of gender-egalitarian values.


  1. Census Bureau, “Historical Income Data,” tables F-12 and H-12. 
  2. Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Grand New Party, Doubleday, 2008, p. 53. 
  3. Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent, Harvard University Press, 1994; Sara McLanahan, “Life without Father: What Happens to the Children?” Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, Princeton University, 2001; David T. Ellwood and Christopher Jencks, “The Uneven Spread of Single-Parent Families: What Do We Know? Where Do We Look for Answers?” in Social Inequality, edited by Kathryn M. Neckerman, Russell Sage Foundation, 2004, p. 9; Sara McLanahan, Laura Tach, and Daniel Schneider, “The Causal Effects of Father Absence,” Annual Review of Sociology, 2013. 
  4. Kathryn Edin and Maria J. Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, University of California Press, 2005; Andrew Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round, Knopf, 2009, ch. 7; Paula England and Kathryn Edin, eds., Unmarried Couples with Children, Russell Sage Foundation, 2009. 
  5. Ellwood and Jencks, “The Uneven Spread of Single-Parent Families,” figure 1.13. See also England and Edin, Unmarried Couples with Children; Sara McLanahan, “Fragile Families and Children’s Opportunity,” Research Briefing, Annual Meeting of the National Academy of Sciences, 2012. 
  6. Ellwood and Jencks, “The Uneven Spread of Single-Parent Families”; Sara McLanahan, “Diverging Destinies: How Children Are Faring Under the Second Demographic Transition,” Demography, 2004; Edin and Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep; Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round, ch. 7; England and Edin, Unmarried Couples with Children; Ron Haskins and Isabel V. Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society, Brookings Institution, 2009, ch. 10; William Julius Wilson, More Than Just Race, W.W. Norton, 2009, ch. 4; Rand D. Conger, Katherine J. Conger, and Monica J. Martin, “Socioeconomic Status, Family Processes, and Individual Development,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 2010; Adam Isen and Betsey Stevenson, “Women’s Education and Family Behavior: Trends in Marriage, Divorce, and Fertility,” Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, 2010; Paula England, Elizabeth McClintock, and Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, “Birth Control Use and Early, Unintended Births: Evidence for a Class Gradient,” in Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America, edited by Marcia Carlson and Paula England, 2012; Paula England, Lawrence L. Wu, and Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, “Cohort Trends in Premarital First Births: What Roles for Premarital Conceptions and the Retreat from Preconception and Postconception Marriage?” 2012; Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Crown Forum, 2012, ch. 8; Timothy J. Nelson and Kathryn Edin, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City, University of California Press, 2013; Andrew Cherlin, Love’s Labor Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America, Russell Sage Foundation, 2014; Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen, “Diverging Destinies Revisited,” in Families in an Era of Increasing Inequality, edited by Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth, Susan M. McHale, and Jennifer Van Hook, Springer, 2015; Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Simon and Schuster, 2015. 
  7. Gøsta Esping-Andersen, “The Return of the Family,” in The Politics of Advanced Capitalism, edited by Pablo Beramendi et al, Cambridge University Press, 2015. 
  8. Francis Castles, “The World Turned Upside Down: Below Replacement Fertility, Changing Preferences, and Family-Friendly Public Policy in 21 OECD Countries.” Journal of European Social Policy, 2003. 
  9. Janet C. Gornick and Marcia K. Meyers, Families That Work, Russell Sage Foundation, 2003; Gøsta Esping-Andersen, The Incomplete Revolution: Adapting to Women’s New Roles, Polity, 2009; Jennifer Hook, “Gender Inequality in the Welfare State: Sex Segregation in Housework, 1965–2003,” American Journal of Sociology, 2010. 
  10. Douthat and Salam, Grand New Party, ch. 7; Haskins and Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society, ch. 10; Elizabeth Marquardt, David Blankenhorn, Robert I. Lerman, Linda Malone-Colon, and W. Bradford Wilcox, “The President’s Marriage Agenda for the Forgotten Sixty Percent,” in The State of Our Unions 2012, Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project, 2012. 
  11. Philip Cohen, “How to Live in a World Where Marriage Is in Decline,” The Atlantic, 2013; Cohen, “Marriage Is Declining Globally,” Family Inequality, 2013. 
  12. Larry Aber et al., “Welfare and Out-of-Wedlock Births: Research Summary,” 1994; Jason DeParle, American Dream, Penguin, 2004; Robert A. Moffitt and John Karl Scholz, “Trends in the Level and Distribution of Income Support,” Working Paper 15488, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009. 
  13. See Robert G. Wood et al., “The Effects of Building Strong Families: A Healthy Marriage and Relationship Skills Education Program for Unmarried Parents,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 2012; also Frank R. Furstenberg, “Cause for Alarm? Understanding Recent Trends in Teenage Childbearing,” Pathways, 2008. 
  14. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round. 
  15. Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round; England and Edin, Unmarried Couples with Children, chs. 1, 3, 6; Wilson, More Than Just Race, ch. 4. 
  16. Isabel V. Sawhill, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage, Brookings Institution, 2014; Gina M. Secura et al, “Provision of No-Cost, Long-Acting Contraception and Teenage Pregnancy,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2014. 
  17. Edin and Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep. 
  18. William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged, University of Chicago Press, 1987; Wilson, When Work Disappears, Vintage, 1996; Wilson, More Than Just Race; Chuck Marr, Krista Ruffini, and Chye-Ching Huang, “Strengthening the EITC for Childless Workers Would Promote Work and Reduce Poverty,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 2013. 
  19. Sawhill, Generation Unbound: Drifting into Sex and Parenthood without Marriage. See also Sabrina Tavernise, “Colorado Finds Startling Success in Effort to Curb Teenage Births,” New York Times, 2015. 
  20. Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine, “Explaining Recent Trends in the U.S. Teen Birth Rate,” Working Paper 17964, National Bureau of Economic Research, 2012. 
  21. Stephanie Coontz, “The Real Story of the American Family,” American Prospect, 2015. 
  22. Lane Kenworthy, “Early Education,” The Good Society. 
  23. Douthat and Salam, Grand New Party; W. Bradford Wilcox, “It Takes a Parent, Not a Policy.” National Review, 2016. 
  24. OECD, “Balancing Work and Family Life: Helping Parents Into Paid Employment,” in OECD Employment Outlook, 2001; Marit Rønsen, “Market Work, Child Care, and the Division of Household Labour: Adaptations of Norwegian Mothers Before and After the Cash-for-Care Reform,” Report 2001/3, Statistics Norway, 2001; Marit Rønsen and Marianne Sundstrom, “Family Policy and After-Birth Employment Among New Mothers: A Comparison of Finland, Norway, and Sweden,” European Journal of Population, 2002; Kimberly J. Morgan and Kathrina Zippel, “Paid to Care: The Origins and Effects of Care Leave Policies in Western Europe,” Social Politics, 2003; Marie Evertsson and Ann-Zofie Duvander, “Parental Leave — Possibility or Trap? Does Family Leave Length Affect Swedish Women’s Labour Market Opportunities?,” European Sociological Review, 2011; Markus Gangl and Andrea Zielfle, “The Making of a Good Woman: Motherhood, Leave Entitlements, and Women’s Work Attachment,” J.W. Goethe University, 2012. 
  25. Edin and Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep. 
  26. In Sweden the home care allowance is used much more frequently by immigrant mothers, who because of language and education deficits have weaker labor market prospects than native-born women. See Kimberly Earles, “Swedish Family Policy — Continuity and Change in the Nordic Welfare State Model,” Social Policy and Administration, 2011. 
  27. Susan E. Mayer, What Money Can’t Buy, Harvard University Press, 1999; Kenworthy, “Early Education.”