Culture

All Happy Families Are Not Alike: Less Than Half Of American Kids Live In A ‘Traditional’ Home

CREDIT: John Shearer/Invision/AP

What does it mean to be in a “traditional” family nowadays? Probably not what you think it means: less than half of American kids under the age of 18 are living in a home with two married, straight parents in their first marriage. The exact headcount of children living this way: 46 percent. That’s down from 1980, when 61 percent of children fit that bill, and way down from 1960, when 73 percent of children did. This data, released yesterday by the Pew Research Center, quantifies a fact you’ve likely discerned from anecdotal experience: all happy families are, actually, not alike. Tolstoy was wrong; never do the reading.

Some other stats from this Pew analysis of new American Community Survey and Decennial Census data: 41 percent of children are born outside of wedlock (in 1960, only five percent of children were born outside of marriage), and 15 percent of children are living with two parents who have been married at least one time before. Single-parent households account for 34 percent of the total — up from 19 in 1980 and 9 in 1960 — and five percent of kids have no parent at home at all, though they may be living with other relatives. The increased number of children living with an unmarried parent is one of the greatest changes in family structure over the past 50-plus years.

To find out the significance of these changes, and to get a better understanding of why it’s so important to Pew to track this data, I called up Gretchen Livingston, the author of this Pew report.

How did you decide to explore family structure? What’s the research topic selection process like?

I had recently done a report looking at increases in remarriage*, so that’s what made me want to look at that from the other angle, meaning, looking at how many kids are potentially experiencing remarriage or living in a household with remarried parents. So that was actually kind of what led me to look at the data in this way. Interestingly, though, we see very little change in the share of kids who are living with two remarried parents. In 1960, 14% of kids were living with two parents, at least one of whom had been married before, and now that number is 15%. That’s not a huge change. I guess I didn’t know what I was going to find, but I was a bit surprised by that.

Did you have any expectations going in about what it is you’d find?

No, we really try to just kind of see what the data tells us more than anything. I found in a prior report that the number of people who have remarried has increased, so for that reason, I thought the number of kids living in remarried households would have increased, but that’s not the case. We still see these very interesting patterns just based on the other categories of family structure.

What stuck out to you the most?

I think the most striking finding is that, if we define the “traditional” family as I think a lot of people do, as that 1950s era family, where two people meet, marry relatively young, they have children and they stay married until widowhood, we see huge declines in the share of kids living in those types of families. In 1960, that number was 73 percent, in 1980 it was 61 percent, and today it’s 46 percent.

In a lot of ways the 1950s and 1960s were an anomaly in family structure; the birth rate was uncommonly high, people married young. So even though people think of that as the traditional image of the family, but it was actually anomaly. It is very interesting, and it’s something a lot of people don’t realize. That’s part of the reason I specifically include data from 1980 in this as well, because in some ways, 1960 was a little bit of an anomaly, because I wanted to show that these patterns have changed even since 1980, which is obviously much more recent and not such an odd period. The baby boom was over by then.

So is it possible that 2014 actually has more in common, family-structure-wise, with the 1920s than with the 1950s?

It would really depend on which variable you’re looking at. But the research shows that the age at first marriage was lower and fertility was quite high during the 1950s and ’60s, for a number of reasons, including that some people had delayed getting pregnant because of World War II, and others were getting married young and having babies young. It is a bit of an unusual period. Yeah, the data is out there and it does show that the ’50s were anomalous as far as the presence of marriage and high fertility.

Pew uses the word “traditional” to describe this particular family structure, although you use it in quotes. Can you talk about how you arrive at that word?

Well, I use the word traditional in quotes, because I feel as though that’s many people still consider that type of family arrangement as the “norm,” or the “ideal,” meaning, as I said before, people meet, get married, then have children, and stay married until death do they part. So I think another appropriate phrase that maybe would have been an option would be something like “the 1950s-style family.”

It’s a loaded term, though; people have value associations with a word like “traditional,” and yet you at Pew are in this situation of needing to use the language that will resonate with most people, and “traditional” is still the word that people use to describe this kind of family.

That sounds like an article in and of itself! And I’m not implying whether traditional is a good or bad thing, I’m using it simply as a shorthand. In this country, most folks still think of the “traditional” family as representing that Leave It To Beaver style.

What else is going on in this data that’s surprising or compelling to you?

I just think it’s interesting to look at these patterns. Less than half of kids are living with two married parents in the first marriage is interesting in and of itself, and it kind of challenges what many of us think of as the “norm.” I should clarify that what we call single parents do include some cohabiting parents as well, although that is a very small percentage. There’s an extremely small number of kids living with married same-sex parents; it’s far less than one percent of children. But the data I use, they’re still working on how well they identify same-sex parents, so I don’t separate them out. But it would be nice to break out, kids living with cohabiting parents as well, and kids living with step-parents, which is a sizeable share of those living with parents where one of the parents is remarried. I also think it’s interesting that the share of kids living with no parent at home has also been pretty stable across time, ranging between 4 and 5 percent.

Why do you think that is?

To be honest, I’m not sure why. In my own research, I’ve looked at kids living with and being raised by grandparents, and I did see an uptick in those numbers during the recession. But in those cases, even if the child was being primarily raised by the grandparent, there was at least one parent in the household as well. I didn’t try to figure out what the backstory would be, for these kids with no parent in the home.

*In 2013, four in ten new marriages included at least one partner who had been previously married; in two in ten new marriages, both people had been married before.