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America's Changing Family


For the first time in the nation's history, fewer than 25 percent of American households are made up of a married man and woman with children.

In a recent study of American households, the United States Census Bureau found more individuals living alone or with a partner without children in 2000 than in 1990. Most of those living alone are widowers, divorcees and elderly people. According to the report, people living alone comprised more than 27 million households in 2000, up from about 22 million in 1990.

Frank Hobbs, a demographer who helped prepare the study, says fewer Americans are living within what’s often called the traditional family, a husband, wife and child, or children.

“Those households that are most common, if we talk about specifics are: Number one is living alone. It’s more common than any other at 26 percent of all U.S. households. A household consisting of only a householder, a spouse, and a child is actually in 2000 the second most common with 22 percent of all households. And the third most common consists of just a householder and a spouse, with no one else present.”

Women and the Single Household

Many analysts say more Americans are increasingly living alone due to a variety of reasons that include divorce, and economic and social changes that began in the 1960s. Peter Francese, a demographer with the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency in New York, says the shift toward living alone is largely due to the economic and social gains women have made in recent decades.

“The story of the change in American households over the last 30 years is the story of the growing economic power of women, their ability to get good jobs, and to support themselves and their children without a husband. That is the most important change over the past 30 years, and really describes the ‘why’ of so much of this household change.”

The Cost of Marriage

In addition, Mr. Francese says so-called “marriage penalties” that levy higher income taxes on married couples also dissuade people from getting married. He adds many married couples are not eligible for the same benefits under current welfare programs for the poor.

Even though Congress recently passed a law that temporarily suspends the marriage tax penalty, Peter Fagan, a culture and family issues fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, says the legislation benefits only the middle class.

“The marriage tax has been reduced and almost pretty much eliminated for the middle class. But it is massive, it’s draconian on the poor. And they don’t pay taxes. So where’s the marriage tax? It comes in the welfare payments. If you are on welfare and you cohabitate with somebody, you’ll receive much more in welfare payments. If the same couple gets married, depending on the state they’re in, the welfare payment will be reduced by up to 25 percent.”

Moreover, Mr. Fagan says the demographic shift toward unmarried households, especially cohabitation, is becoming increasingly the norm. He adds, “There’s been an acceptance of it, whereas it was seriously frowned on and lots of social effort was put into keeping families together before 1950. Particularly since the sexual revolution in the mid-1960s, splitting and setting-up families without a married father and mother has become widely accepted.”

Some analysts warn that children living with single or divorced mothers, or cohabiting partners are more likely to become involved in drugs and crime, and do poorly in school. Although others say many factors, including good health, parental guidance and financial stability of a household contribute to the welfare of children regardless of the type of families they grow up in.

Jennifer Gaboury, a board member for the Alternatives to Marriage Project, an advocacy group for unmarried people, argues that there is no direct correlation between marital status of a household and whether or not a child is successful in life. She says that 12-million single parents in the United States are successfully raising children on their own.

New Realities, New Households

Because there are different types of living structures in the United States, including divorced parents and unmarried siblings raising their children together, Jennifer Gaboury says government policies should take into account the variety of households. She goes on to say, “There are a myriad of different designs of families, so we can no longer pretend that families come with a mother, a father and several children. And we need to acknowledge that reality and support all different kinds of families.”

The Bush Administration has proposed a new initiative to help strengthen the institution of marriage.

According to Bridgette Maher of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C., President Bush’s program is included in welfare reform legislation, currently under review by the U.S. Congress. She says, “The President’s ‘Healthy Marriage Initiative’ includes allocating about 300 million dollars for marriage strengthening programs. These can include premarital education classes to help people prepare for marriage or marriage strengthening classes which would teach couples how to better their communication skills.”

Most analysts expect a further decline in the number of married couples with children during the next decade to one out of every five households. Because of that, some experts contend that federal legislation needs to catch up with the move away from traditional families, and extend tax and welfare benefits to single and unmarried couples that account for much of this demographic shift in the United States.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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