For anyone following trends in the American family in the past half century, it’s been one damn thing after another: a dramatic climb in the percentage of births to unmarried mothers—from 5 percent in 1960 to today’s 40 percent—a divorce revolution that at its height landed half of all marriages in family court, a surge in single-parent homes, fewer fathers involved in kids’ lives, more complex families. I could go on.
Could we finally be getting some relief from this relentless story of family decline? Recent work by the demographer Lyman Stone suggests that this could be the case. Let me stress: could be. For while there’s some good news, it has to be followed with an emphatic “but.”
In his most recent post at the Institute for Family Studies (IFS) blog, Stone includes a dramatic graph tracing the share of children living with their two married parents over time. As we already knew, the number dropped like an iron from a cliff after 1960—so steep that the line on the graph almost forms a 90-degree angle. Before the fall, 87 percent of children were growing up in intact families; by 2010, only about 62 percent were. And then, suddenly, what had seemed like the inexorable forces of demographic gravity seemed to weaken. By 2014, the share of children with a mother and father at home remained stable for a few years. Since then, it has even inched up by 1.5 percent.
It’s a small improvement for sure, one that ordinarily wouldn’t merit much notice. But because the decline seemed so unstoppable for so long, it’s worth considering what’s happened. Stone has some thoughts on the subject. First, fewer couples are divorcing. This may come as a surprise to people who have absorbed the tenacious meme that half of all marriages end in divorce. That was true in the 1980s. But divorce rates have been declining since then.
In fact, they continued to do so even through the pandemic. Some readers might remember a spate of articles in 2020 quoting divorce lawyers who claimed that business was booming in the midst of the pandemic shock. Either the lawyers weren’t telling the truth or a lot of people who were considering splitting up had a change of heart. As it happens, divorce rates declined during the pandemic. It’s a bridge too far to say that Covid-19 was good for the American family, but it’s still a curious thing, given the stresses of remote work, school closures, and Zoom classrooms. Did uncertainty about the future make couples more cautious about splitting up? Or, after listening to the day’s alarming news about overflowing hospital corridors, ventilator shortages, and nursing home deaths, did people look at their spouses as they settled in for another evening streaming Ozark and think, “Gee, maybe I haven’t got it so bad”?
Still, whatever its cause, less divorce takes us only so far in understanding why more kids are living with both parents. One other reason is more of a statistical artifact than evidence that more children are growing up in stable homes. For one thing, since the Great Recession, never-married women have been having fewer kids. The opposite is true for ever-married women whose fertility rates have held steady. The result is a shift in favor of intact families.
Fewer single-mother households, more stable family lives for kids: that sounds hopeful. But because fewer people are getting married and having children in the first place, it’s a mixed bag, since, as Stone puts it, “Fertility rates have been falling faster than marriage rates.” In a previous paper for IFS, Stone notes that less marriage and more childlessness means we’ll soon be seeing more women approaching retirement age with no immediate family. The same goes for men. And in a culture struggling with loneliness and disconnection, that’s simply bad.
One final reason we shouldn’t stop fretting about the state of the American family may be the most consequential of all: the hardening divide between college-educated couples and their less educated, lower-income counterparts. In the early decades of the revolution that hit the family starting in 1960, single motherhood was largely limited to poor, near-poor, and mostly black women. In more recent decades, family breakdown—single motherhood, fatherlessness, instability—has hit the lower-middle class of all races. A growing number of Americans view marriage as a luxury good, well beyond their means. Their children’s already-constrained chances for moving up the income and class ladder are at risk of deteriorating even more. The cultural and political implications of this divide should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention.
In short, there is good news on the family front—but largely for those already used to good news.
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