Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America

Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America

Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America

Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America


American families are far more diverse and complex today than they were 50 years ago. As ideas about marriage, divorce, and remarriage have changed, so too have our understandings about cohabitation, childbearing, parenting, and the transition to adulthood. Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds have witnessed changes in the nature of family life, but as this book reveals, these changes play out in very different ways for the wealthy or well off than they do for the poor.

Social Class and Changing Families in an Unequal America offers an up-to-the-moment assessment of the condition of the family in an era of growing inequality. Highlighting unique aspects of family behavior, it reveals the degree to which families' varying experiences are shaped by social class. This book offers a much needed assessment of contemporary family life amid the turbulent economic changes in the United States.


The latter half of the twentieth century witnessed dramatic changes that increased the diversity and complexity of U.S. families. The longstanding link between marriage and childbearing weakened. Today, adults are likely to spend time living with more than one partner in marital and/or cohabiting unions, and children often experience several changes in which adults live with them. More and more children spend years living apart from one of their biological parents—typically the father. Over the last quarter of the twentieth century, we also saw a tremendous increase in U.S. economic inequality, whether measured with respect to wage rates, earnings, or family incomes (Gottschalk and Danziger 2005). Inequality rose in the 1980s, slowed somewhat in the 1990s during the economic expansion, then continued to rise as we entered the twenty-first century. Recent cross-national comparisons show that the United States has by far the highest level of family income inequality among all industrialized OECD countries; in 2000, a high-income American (at the ninetieth percentile of the income distribution) had roughly five and one-half times the family income of a low-income American (at the tenth percentile), even after adjusting for taxes, transfers, and family size (Brandolini and Smeeding 2006).

Family patterns have not only changed; they have also become more unequal by education and other measures of social class. Highly educated individuals are now more likely to marry (Goldstein and Kenney 2001); less-educated couples have always been more likely to divorce; but the gap between the two has grown (S. Martin 2006). Being born to unmarried parents is also tied to social class: while there has been very little increase in nonmarital childbearing among highly educated women since 1970, there has been a substantial increase among women in the bottom two-thirds of the distribution (Ellwood and Jencks 2004). Mothers giving birth outside

We sincerely appreciate the thoughtful comments of two anonymous reviewers
about this and all chapters in the volume.

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