Is the ‘Average’ American Family Vanishing?

Posted December 10th, 2014 at 4:19 pm (UTC-4)

One-third of American children live in households with two married parents. (Photo: David Amsler, via Flickr)

One-third of American children live in households with two married parents. (Photo: David Amsler, via Flickr)

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.

Public Domain Photo

Photo of the Cleaver family from the television program “Leave it to Beaver”, Jan. 8, 1960. From left: Hugh Beaumont (Ward), Tony Dow (Wally), Barbara Billingsley (June), Jerry Mathers (Theodore AKA “Beaver”).

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.”

13 responses to “Is the ‘Average’ American Family Vanishing?”

  1. Bill Welker says:

    It is a sad commentary that the basic family unit appears to be eroding. There appears to be more opportunity in business and general lifestyle today, but we won’t know the cost until our children grow up, I guess.

  2. alice says:

    very good

  3. Andy says:

    Yeah professor – let’s celebrate the destruction of the American family. It’s really worked out well for the black community.

  4. Amir Shakeel says:

    Options lead to many exit doors. Happiness is independent of structures. Princess Diana was surrounded by Dream structures which lacked her level of happiness so she took divorce option. Happy person is better for society than a person under tension. American family structure has also changed for above reasons. So I think v should support the trend.

  5. Voice of Reason says:

    The circumstances in society over all have changed since the 60’s. Women in the work place wasn’t very common during that time in history and the means to creating a real nest egg takes effort from all parties in household these days. With an economy that’s still recovering, being able to have a spouse remain at home while the other works is a luxury. I’m more than sure if these family units had an option where one person stays home, they would chose it. Unfortunately in this day and time this isn’t a viable option.

    As far as the ignorant comment left by “Andy”. Your statement is baseless and out of line. What could you begin to know about the “black community”? I pray and hope that one day your hate and racist rhetoric is replaced with knowledge and understanding.

    • slow down says:

      Maybe you should ask Andy what race he is before you make wild conjectures.

    • Rocky J. says:

      Although @Andy’s remarks were stated in a way that sounded racist, statistics do backup his point. In 2012 according to statistics 6,493,000 African-American children (67%) lived in a single-parent household. This is not to say that Non-Hispanic White children do not also fall in this category. Approximately 9,358,000 Non-Hispanic White children (25%) also lived in a single parent household. (Data from Kids Count Data Center )(

      This is not something to celebrate however.

  6. sinelga says:

    Its unbelievable, this professor “celebrates” the diversity of increased poverty, purposelessness of life, losing values, identity confusion and generally more unhappy broken units still calling themselves family… Instead of looking how to repair sick society, and for that – to BOOST THE VALUE SYSTEM, he is trying to conform to all emerging trends, as guy marriages, single parenting (isa he an idiot to even suggest to celebrate it ? ) etc. Sad sad sad

  7. Deb says:

    Instead of either criticizing or celebrating this new reality, we need to see how we as a nation can best support children in all of these different kinds of families, so that they can live up to their full potential as human beings who can contribute positively to the future.

    • James T. says:

      That should be done in the home, first and foremost. Otherwise, why have kids in the first place? To pawn off on someone else? (Are we lacking common sense this severely…????)

      • Deb says:

        James, you are absolutely right, but unfortunately not everyone plans as well as you or I might for having children. Are we really going to leave these kids to suffer because of the mistakes of their parents? It’s in the best interest of society to help them out – otherwise they may grow up to be irresponsible parents, too, and the cycle will be perpetuated.

  8. James T. says:

    I’m fairly certain the only way a professor of sociology can get tenure at an “institution of higher learning” nowadays is to mutter jibberish that makes absolutely no sense. I hope this fool lives long enough to see the “exciting” society America is blessed with in 20 to 30 years thanks to backwards, anti-establishment thinking like his.

  9. Pete says:

    My children are better off after my divorce. 28 years of a very terrible marriage wasn’t good for them. Just because your married doesn’t make a better situation for kids to be raised.

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