The initial take on the 2000 Census made for pretty grim reading—the latest chapter in an ongoing "Demise-of-Ozzie-and-Harriet" saga. FOR THE FIRST TIME NUCLEAR FAMILIES DROP BELOW 25 PERCENT OF HOUSEHOLDS, trumpeted the New York Times headline. A Newsweek cover story purported to explain WHY THE TRADITIONAL FAMILY IS FADING FAST.
Turns out that the real story, which almost everyone missed, is brighter. For the first time since the family began to crumble in the late 1960s, there are signs that it has stopped declining and may even be coming back. Yes, people are marrying later and living longer, so we’ve got more singles, widows, and empty nesters dragging down married families as a percentage of the total population—hence the gloomy headlines. But look closely and you’ll see that the percentage of American children living in married families is, at 70 percent, around where it was a decade ago.
And on the single-mother front the news is even more encouraging. The liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, parsing the census data, found that, from 1995 to 2000, the proportion of kids living with single mothers fell a stunning 8 percent—2 percent from 1999 to 2000 alone. The percentage of black kids living with married parents shot up from 34.8 percent to nearly 39 percent—a substantial upturn after years of decline. Welfare guru Mickey Kaus crunched the numbers further: after the black out-of-wedlock birthrate peaked at just over 70 percent in 1994, he discovered, the married birthrate jumped up 5 percent in as many years. Welfare reform anyone?
If the family isn’t "fading fast," though, its health is far from assured. One reason a smaller proportion of kids lives with single mothers, the CBPP numbers show, is the surging immigration of Asians and Hispanics, who come to this country with strong families. Another reason is that more children live with single dads or with mom and her boyfriend—who may or may not be the child’s dad.
The biggest reason not to break out the wedding champagne yet, however, is that elite opinion still treats adult self-realization and sexual freedom as more important than children’s needs. The 1996 welfare reform bill is up for reauthorization next year, and already feminist groups are gearing up to make sure pro-marriage initiatives won’t be part of any new welfare bill. In New York, all four Democratic mayoral candidates back a City Council measure that requires firms to provide domestic-partner benefits if they want to do business with the city—a sure way to demote the status of traditional marriage. But the winner of the "Kids Last" award has to be a New York Times front-page story—on Father’s Day, no less—toasting the rising number of single fathers as a happy sign of eroding gender stereotypes. The writer never bothered mentioning that it is divorce and, in some cases, child abandonment that drives this "revolution."
Troubling, too, was a recent Gallup poll that found that only 16 percent of twentysomethings think that marriage’s main purpose is to raise children. A disturbing 62 percent say it’s okay for a woman to have a child on her own; 43 percent believe that government should provide couples shacking up with the same benefits as married couples. If this is our future, those "fading fast" headlines may turn out true.