We’ve all heard about the growing numbers of breadwinner moms (40 percent of all U.S. households, in case you were wondering), but American families are diversifying in more than one way, and recent studies show that those changes aren’t just affecting our culture: Family structure may have a huge impact on the next generation’s economic opportunities. A study released earlier this month by the non-partisan Council on Contemporary Families shows that compared to 50 years ago, children are growing up in very different households.
Image: George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, via Flickr Creative Commons license
Let’s compare data over the past 50 years:
- In the 1960s, the vast majority of kids—65%—were living in a family with two married parents, with only the father employed in the labor force.
- By 2012, only 22% of American children were being raised in a two-parent household with the father as the sole breadwinner.
So What’s the New Normal American Family?
Here’s the thing: There is no one “typical” modern family. The most prevalent form of American household has two married parents, who both work outside the home. But those dual-income families make up only 34% of the population, hardly a majority. The graphic below, based on U.S. Census data shows a wide variety of family structures, including cohabiting but unmarried parents, married parents with a breadwinner mother, and never-married mothers:
Image Credit: Council on Contemporary Families
If you add together the numbers of children living with never-married mothers and divorced mothers, 23% of American children live in single-mom households.
And if you take into account another recent study by the Brookings Institution, those kids have far fewer opportunities to advance in life than their peers in two-parent homes. Most of us raised in America hold a deep-seated belief—or at least a flicker of hope—that we can overcome hardscrabble beginnings with education, hard work, and a little luck. But in the article Saving Horatio Alger, Brookings Institution Fellow Richard Reeves tells a very different story, saying:
"A child raised by a poor, unmarried mother has a 50 percent risk of remaining stuck on the bottom rung of the ladder, and just a 5 percent chance of making it to the top."
The odds are even worse for black Americans:
Half the black children growing up on the bottom rung remain stuck there as adults (51 percent), compared to just one in four whites (23 percent).
Data for the study, which began in the 1970s and 80s, did not break out information for other racial groups. In this video, Reeves uses LEGO blocks to illustrate these points, and more, in the growing divide in income inequality:
What Can Be Done to Address Changing Family Demographics?
Our current labor laws were largely drafted in the 1950s and 60s, when family and employment structures looked much more like the left side of the chart above. Many think tanks suggest that government policies need to updated to reflect modern families. Phillip Cohen, Ph.D. Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland, writes in the article Diversity is the New Normal for America's Children published by the Council on Contemporary Families:
“Different families have different child-rearing challenges and needs, which means we are no longer well served by policies that assume most children will be raised by married-couple families, especially ones where the mother stays home throughout the children’s early years. As we debate social and economic policy, we need to consider the needs of children in many different family situations, and how they will be affected by policy changes, rather than privileging one particular family structure or arrangement.”
I think the most powerful solutions lie, as Reeves concludes, in changing both policy and non-governmental community efforts to create better futures for the next generation. He says:
"Democrats emphasize inequalities in material dimensions, especially money; Republicans focus on class gaps in family, schooling, and community. Of course both are right. Cash gaps and class gaps both matter, and any political agenda that addresses only one side of the equality equation is destined to fail."
Are you surprised by these studies? What do you think would help create economic opportunities for the next generation?
News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.
More from living