The Changing American Family

Fewer than 25 percent of American households are made up of a married man and woman with their children. So what do families look like now?

Shifting Demographics

If all you did was watch television commercials for minivans, you might think that the traditional All-American family was still intact -- Mom, Dad, dog, and the 2.5 kids buckle up and drive off every day on TV. But ads (depending on your perspective) are either selling aspirations or guilt: This is the family you're supposed to have, supposed to want.

In real life, in big cities and in smaller towns, families are single moms, they're stepfamilies, they're boyfriends and girlfriends not getting married at the moment, they're foster parents, they're two dads or two moms, they're a village. In real life, in 2005, families are richly diverse.

And are only getting more so.

In fact, the very definition of "family" is changing dramatically. The year 2000 marked the first time that less than a quarter (23.5 percent) of American households were made up of a married man and woman and one or more of their children -- a drop from 45 percent in 1960. This number is expected to fall to 20 percent by 2010.

Why the Changes?

The change in the makeup of the American family is the result of two primary factors, says Martin O'Connell, chief of fertility and family statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau, which collects such figures every 10 years. First, more babies (about a third) are now born out of wedlock, and second, divorce rates continue to climb so that nearly half of all marriage contracts are broken.

What's Normal Now?

The overall attitude toward relationships and commitment has shifted. More than half of female high school seniors say that having a child outside of marriage is acceptable, according to a recent poll from the University of Michigan Survey Research Center. And census data shows that 26 percent of all households are made up of a single person, living alone (as opposed to 13 percent back in 1960).

While a good portion of these singles are likely senior citizens, others are younger career folks who don't feel yesteryear's societal pressure to rush into partnerships.

"In 2002, the median age for a woman's first marriage was 27," says O'Connell. That's five years older than it was even in 1980. Sometimes young singles establish their individual identities so solidly that they never marry, even if they have children. These couples may partner up -- but without the papers.

Adoption, no marriage: Such was the case with Steve Wilson and Erin Mayes, a couple in their mid-30s living in Austin, Texas. They've been together for 10 years, own a home together, and though they've talked about it, have decided it isn't necessary to get married. Still, they wanted a family and, last June, adopted a baby boy.

Wedding after baby: Another example is Jared and Lori Goldman, of San Mateo, California. Their relationship was relatively new when Lori got pregnant in 2000. They agreed to raise the child together but didn't get engaged. But not long after their daughter was born, Jared proposed. "Reverse order worked better for us," he says. Lori agrees: "Our wedding felt more meaningful happening on its own time instead of on the traditional schedule. What girl wants a shotgun wedding?"

Single moms on the rise: Of course, because currently one-third of all babies are born out of wedlock, it's no surprise that many mothers remain single. When she got pregnant, Pam Hansell says her boyfriend initially seemed supportive. Then he began dodging her phone calls and e-mails, and eventually cut contact. Deeply hurt but determined to give her child a good life, Hansell moved in with her parents, outside of Philadelphia, and gave birth to a daughter in March. "When I realized I couldn't count on the father, it was devastating. I'm so thankful that family and friends have stepped in," Hansell says.

Two dads: Finally, Dean Larkin and Paul Park are living out another common-in-today's-world scenario. They live together in Los Angeles, and Larkin has a 21-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. Now he and Park are planning a second child, via a surrogate mother. They'd like to marry, but gay marriage is not legal nationally.

Reactions from the Trenches

Perhaps no one has a better ringside seat to all these untraditional family setups than those involved in the childbirth industry. "I've seen unmarried couples come in, lesbian couples, mothers who have been here with one father and then come in with a new father -- the family dynamics and structures have changed a lot over the past 25 years," says Barbara Hotelling, president of Lamaze International and a long-time childbirth instructor.

Based in Rochester Hills, Michigan, Hotelling probably sees a good cross section of American families and, while she doesn't ask the marital status of her students, estimates that around 20 percent are unmarried, compared with maybe 5 percent when she first began her career.

Hotelling has shifted her language with the times. She says she used to call her students moms and dads, but now, "I say 'moms and partners' and hope nobody screams."

The Marriage Advantage

According to 1999 figures from the Population Resource Center, families in which the mother is the head of the household are, by and large, living on less. Because of the wage gap, female-headed households earn, on average, $26,164 a year; male-headed households earn $41,138 per year; and married households earn $56,827 per year.

Then, there are the more than 1,100 federal benefits that married households can take advantage of during a lifetime.

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, married partners can take leave from work when their spouse gets sick; unmarried partners cannot. Federal Medicaid laws permit only married couples to keep their homes when one partner needs nursing home care; an unmarried partner can lose the house. When a married person dies, the spouse inherits Social Security benefits; an unmarried partner gets nothing.

All told, according to the Los Angeles-based American Association for Single People and cited in an October 2003 Business Week article, with health benefits, retirement, and so on, married families can "earn" 25 percent more than unmarried ones.

Marriage Penalties

How does this stack up with the so-called "marriage penalty" that people complain about at tax time? Two of the major tax penalties were eliminated in 2003, says Fred Grant, a senior tax analyst at Turbo Tax, a corporation that produces electronic tax preparation programs.

Used to be, married couples filing jointly had a lower standard deduction than two singles living together, and married couples (in the lowest two income brackets) got bumped into a higher tax bracket on a combined income, thus paying more taxes overall. Now, only the richest three tiers pay more as marrieds than as cohabiters.

There are a few other penalties married couples face (for example, they need a lower combined income to qualify for a $1,000 per-child tax credit), but, Grant warns, taxes are such a complex soup incorporating home ownership, itemizations, and more, it's almost impossible to state assertively which type of family comes out ahead tax-wise.

Money, Marriage -- and Children

What is safe to say is that the kids of untraditional families can wind up penalized. Of course, there are many possible scenarios. In the best cases, kids living with, for instance, only their mother also receive financial support from a father. But as many single moms will tell you, not all fathers pay their full share of childcare costs.

Statistics also show that there are many kids lacking basic health insurance -- at last count, about 8.4 million, according to the U.S. Census. All told, there are 11 million children (16 percent) living at or below the poverty line, and while that's not broken down into the number of kids with married or unmarried parents, it's a sure bet that many impoverished kids are in untraditional families.

Single and Satisfied

Though a growing number of couples are fine with never getting married, the vast majority of cohabiting relationships change into either marriage or separation after an average of 18 months, says Susan Brown, PhD, associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University's Center for Family and Demographic Research and a contributor to the 2002 collection of essays and studies Just Living Together. She says that according to some research, there may be a psychological cost to raising a family without the mental safety net of marriage.

"I've found that cohabiters are more depressed than married people, and it seems to be because of relationship instability," Brown says. That means most unmarried parents who live together get married eventually -- or break up and seek other potential spouses.

The Growth of Gay Families

According to the Urban Institute, 2 in 5 gay or lesbian couples live in a house with children under age 18. But because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't figure same-sex relationships into their data, it's hard to pinpoint exactly how many children are living with gay or lesbian parents.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) places its bet between one and nine million children, which means somewhere between 1.4 percent and 12.5 percent of all kids. While the AAP issued a statement saying that children of same-sex couples deserve two legally recognized parents, no state can grant federal marriage benefits to these couples, and only these states -- California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Vermont -- allows state rights, such as the guarantee that unmarried parents can visit a child in the hospital.

Two moms, one donor: One couple, Sue Hamilton and Christy Sumner, used a sperm bank when they decided to have a baby. While the couple isn't able to marry in their home state of California, Hamilton recently adopted their daughter, which is legal there. Negotiating state laws puts extra stress on gay and lesbian families, but Hamilton and Sumner have encountered a few sympathizers. "One of the hospital workers fell in love with our family," Hamilton says.

"She thought it was nutty that birth certificates have to read 'mother' and 'father,' and typed up a mock certificate that just has our names on it."

Can Your Employer Help You?

Some large employers are scrambling to catch up to how families are changing. Traditionally, companies required workers to be married if they wanted benefits for household members. But now, "in order to attract and retain quality employees, the benefits need to be more flexible," says Kevin Marrs of the American Society of Employers, an organization that tracks information for firms in the Detroit area. He concedes, however, that because domestic partner benefits can cost a company more money, many small independent businesses don't yet offer them.

Families, Privileges, and the Law

Few laws protect untraditional families. In fact, at this point federal laws don't prohibit discrimination based on marital status, so unmarried families can and do face discrimination in these key areas:

  • housing
  • employment
  • adoption
  • insurance
  • child custody
  • hospital visitation
  • the ability to make a decision for a partner or child in an emergency

Wilson and Mayes are lucky -- their decision to not get married is made easier by the fact that their state, Texas, permits common-law marriage status. Declaring that lets them enjoy joint health coverage through Mayes's employer, and it smoothed the adoption process. If all states had such laws, a great many people would benefit. But only 16 states recognize common-law marriage -- and three of those require couples to prove they've been living together since the '90s, according to Nolo Press, which publishes plain-English legal information.

Why Aren't Laws Catching Up to How We're Living?

To many politicians, pushing for marriage is easier than changing laws. President Bush proposed spending $1.5 billion over five years on a Healthy Marriage Initiative to encourage couples (especially in poor communities) to marry. The money hasn't been approved, but the Department of Health and Human Services is running the program.

"Bush [advocates] marriage among low-income populations as a way to ameliorate poverty. But I'm not sure that's the answer," Brown says.

Daniel Lichter, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, goes even further. In his 2003 study, "Is Marriage a Panacea?" he shows that poverty rates for disadvantaged women who marry and then divorce are actually higher than for women who never marry in the first place. (One thought is that the loss of financial stability as a direct result of divorce -- which costs money in itself -- may set women back.) So getting married doesn't always ease the financial burden of raising kids, and it certainly doesn't help open the rigid boundaries of what "counts" as a family.

The answer probably lies in making sure all families -- whether Mom and Dad drive the minivan to soccer practice or Mom piles her stepkids onto the city bus -- receive the same kinds of rights, benefits, and treatment. Access to affordable childcare and living wages are also more direct solutions.

Discrimination against unmarried families is still real. But those families also have the love and courage it takes to press for change. Says Hamilton, "It really doesn't matter what kind of relationship the parents are in -- what matters is the love they have for their child. That is what makes a family."

Cris Beam is a writer in New York City.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, May 2005.

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