The average American family used to look very much like the fictional Cleaver family in the classic television show Leave It to Beaver, with two married parents and the father as the breadwinner. But that family arrangement is no longer the norm in the United States.
“There is no average American family and that’s what’s exciting and interesting about families today,” said University of Maryland sociology Professor Philip N. Cohen. “Diversity is the new normal.”
Today, one-third of American children still live in households with two married parents where only the father works, a significant decline from 1960, when two-thirds of U.S. children lived in married couple households in which the husband worked. Today, the largest segment of American families consists of two married parents who both work.
To reach his conclusions, Cohen primarily used information the U.S. Census Bureau collected from 1960 until 2012. Every 10 years, the government-funded agency conducts a nationwide population and housing poll.
He found that 34 percent of children are raised by dual-income, married parents, while 22 percent live in households where only the father works. Twenty-three percent of children live with a single mother, half of whom have never been married. Seven percent live with a parent cohabiting with a romantic partner. About 3 percent of children live with a single father and about 1 percent live with same-sex married couples.
Various factors have driven the changing face of the American family, including the emerging financial independence of women. After 1960, more woman than ever began to find employment outside the home. That shift to the marketplace gave women a variety of options they hadn’t enjoyed before.
“It’s become more possible for people to divorce out of an unhappy marriage or an abusive marriage,” said Cohen, “and more possible to raise children as a single parent, rather than have a shotgun wedding or marriage with a partner that’s not someone’s desired marriage partner.”
And there are simply more households overall. Fewer single young adults are residing at home and more older people are living on their own, thanks to improved healthcare and social security, a federal insurance program that provides financial and other benefits to retired people.
The decline in marriage is much more pronounced among African-American families than any other group, and it’s not just because of economics, according to Cohen, who sees inequality as a key part of the equation.
“We still have a lot of racism in America,” Cohen said. “Black Americans are the least likely to marry outside their own group. We have very high rates of incarceration, especially in inner-city African-American communities and that not only pulls people out of the marriage pool but also provides a taint or a stigma on the people who’ve been in prison…so between concentrated poverty, unemployment, incarceration and various other health situations, the African-American situation is quite unique.”
There are segments of U.S. society that see the decline in marriage rates as proof of an unraveling of the American family. However, Cohen views the numbers differently.
“I think it’s also interesting to turn it around and to describe the same pattern as an increase in diversity because it’s not as though marriage is declining and being replaced by one thing, such as single parenthood,” he said. “It’s really that marriage has declined from its position of dominance and been replaced by sort of a wide variety of arrangements.”