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Ethics & Religion
Column #2,010
Feb. 18, 2020
The Nuclear Family - Part 1 of 2
By Mike McManus

For generations, the American ideal was the nuclear family, with a Mom and Dad and two kids. However, divorce and cohabitation have destroyed that structure. A majority of adults with children (65%) either never married (46%) or are divorced, separated or widowed.

In the 1960s only 5% of children were born to unmarried parents. Now 40% are born to cohabiting parents, few of whom marry. And those who do, are more likely to divorce. Their children fare poorly in America.

In addition. 45% of marriages end in divorce.

In 1960, 77.5% of all children were living with their two married parents - the nuclear family ideal. "For a time, it seemed to work," writes David Brooks in an essay for the current The Atlantic, "The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake." He notes that "From 1950 to 1965, divorce rates dropped, fertility rates rose and the American nuclear family seemed to be in wonderful shape."

"A certain family idea became engraved in our minds: a married couple with 2.5 kids." But that "wasn't the way most humans lived during the tens of thousands of years before 1950, and it isn't the way most human have lived during the 55 years since," Brooks asserts.

I remember TV shows such as "Father Knows Best" with Robert Young, Later it was "Ozzie & Harriet," and "The Brady Bunch" - which celebrated the nuclear family. The Barry Levinson 1990 film, Avalon, showed dozens of people celebrating a Thanksgiving with grandparents telling old family stories for the 37th time. After the meal, there are piles of plates in the sink, squads of children conspiring mischievously in the basement.

After World War II conditions were ideal for family stability. "The post war period was a high water mark of church attendance, unionization, social trust and mass prosperity," Brooks reports.

However, today only a minority of American households are traditional two-parent nuclear families and only one-third of Americans live in this kind of family. Nuclear families fragmented into ever smaller and more fragile forms - single parent families, chaotic families or no families.

Families once at least gathered around the television. Now each person has their own screen. "We've made life freer for adults but worse for children. We've moved from big, interconnected and extended families which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to...smaller and detached nuclear families," Brooks asserts.

In 2004, 33% of Americans aged 18 to 34 were living without a romantic partner. By 2018, that number was up to 51%. In 2012, most American family households had no children.

Over the past two generations, families have grown more unequal. Highly educated families are almost as stable as they were in the 1950s. Among the less fortunate, family life is often utter chaos. The affluent have resources for babysitting, tutoring, coaching, therapy, expensive after-school programs.

Among Americans aged 18 to 55, only 26% of the poor and 39% of the working class are married. As Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, put it, "It is the privileged Americans - who are marrying and marrying helps them stay privileged."

Only 11% of children lived apart from their father in 1960. Now about half do so. In fact, American children are more apt to live with a single parent - more than in any other country.

Race compounds these problems. Nearly half of black families are led by unmarried single women, compared with less than one-sixth of white families. The high rate of black incarceration guarantees a shortage of available men. A quarter of black women over 35 have never been married vs. only 8% of white women. Two-thirds of African-American children lived in single parent homes compared to only a quarter of white children.

One consequence of the collapse of the nuclear family is "the rise of opioid addiction, of suicide, of depression...products of a family structure that is too fragile and a society that is too detached, disconnected and distrustful," Brooks asserts.

Surprisingly, family life began to grow stronger after the 2008 recession. In 1980 only 12% of Americans lived in multigenerational households. But the financial crisis of 2008 prompted a sharp rise in multigenerational homes. Today 20% of Americans - 64 million people, an all-time high, live in multigenerational homes.

This movement has been driven by young adults moving back home. "In 2014, 35% of U.S. men aged 18 to 34 lived with their parents. Another chunk of the revival is attributable to seniors moving in with their children," Brooks reports. Now more than fifth of Americans 65 and over live in multigenerational homes.

That is the long term hope for the family.


Copyright (c) 2019 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to www.ethicsandreligion.comm. Hit Search for any topic.


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