Mary Sanchez

To bolster the American family, we need to get a grip on what it is


The typical American family. Does that phrase mean anything to you? Can you picture what it looks like?

For a few these days, it may still conjure a breadwinner dad, a stay-at-home mom and a couple of kids. Others, prepared to believe the worst, might imagine a single mom and a brood of children. Working stiffs might well assume it consists of two spouses both of whom earn paychecks.

Each of these family types is common enough, but none is common enough to be typical or average. The truth is there is no typical American family type.

Family structure today is complicated. But you wouldn’t know it, to listen to many politicians or judge by the policies that affect families. Everything from tax incentives to Social Security retirement benefits to the availability — or, rather, unavailability — of public pre-K schooling suggests that we need to revamp how we think about family life and family economics.

Much of American life remains structured by the assumption that most children live with two parents, only one of whom works. Many of our family policy initiatives seemed designed to somehow regain that long-gone family pattern.

New research shows rather dramatically that no one dominant structure exists for families with children today. And we’ve been drifting this way for decades.

Substantial numbers of children are living in homes with divorced mothers, never-married mothers, single fathers, grandparents, cohabitating adults who may or may not both be working, and a range of other configurations, according to research done for the Council on Contemporary Families.

And children migrate in and out of differing arrangements as they grow up, said Philip Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who authored the study, “Family Diversity is the New Normal for America’s Children.”

Most of us realized long ago that married parents, with dad as the breadwinner and mom at home, is an image only accurate in black-and-white television shows of the 1950s.

Based on historical analysis of U.S. Census data, Cohen has been able to illustrate the enormity of the change: “At the end of the 1950s, if you chose 100 children under age 15 to represent all children, 65 would have been living in a family with married parents, with the father employed and the mother out of the paid labor force. Only 18 would have had married parents who were both employed. As for other types of family arrangements, you would find only one child in every 350 living with a never-married mother.”

Flash forward to now. “Out of 100 representative children, just 22 live in a married, male-breadwinner family, while 23 live with a single mother (and only half of those mothers have ever been married). Seven out of every 100 live with a parent who cohabits with an unmarried partner (an arrangement that was too rare for the Census to consider counting in 1960). And six might live with either a single father or grandparents. The single largest group of children — 34 out of 100 — live with dual-earner married parents, but such families are only a third of the total, so they can’t be described as average.”

Cohen attributed the changes to a range of factors: market forces, higher education rates for women, social welfare reform and a plethora of inventions that freed women from what was once time-consuming housework they alone were expected to do. More recently, the extended recession has caused upheaval and rearrangements.

New family arrangements reflect a broader range of choices and opportunities, in some cases, and greater insecurity and susceptibility to disaster in others. When a single breadwinner loses a job, a stay-at-home spouse can enter the workforce, cushioning the impact. When a two-earner family loses a job, or when a single parent does, there is often no backstop.

Women have made great strides toward equal participation in the workplace with men, and on this has been an overwhelmingly positive development. At the same time, most two-parent families feel great pressure to have two incomes in order to provide minimal security.

Security is another theme of Cohen’s study. He argues that his research shows that when people feel more secure — when they believe that they will be able to gain a higher education, marketable job skills and resources to retire — they tend to stabilize their lifestyles.

More security — “taking the edge off insecurities, settling down the turbulence” — is what many American families need. To help them get it, policy makers need to understand what American families look like these days. Only then can we set about promoting policy and supports that help many differing families and individuals achieve, not just ones that fit an ideal of yesteryear.

It’s complicated, to be sure, but Cohen’s study is a fine starting point.

To reach Mary Sanchez call 816-234-4752 or email or Twitter@msanchezcolumn.