Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

The Times They Are A'Changing: The "American Family" and Family Law

Academic journal article Michigan Family Review

The Times They Are A'Changing: The "American Family" and Family Law

Article excerpt

The State of the American Family at the Cusp of the Millennium [3]

The number of households in the United States continues to increase. Forty-four million were reported in the 1950s; currently there are 100 million. However, the households of the 1950s and the households of the 1990s are quite dissimilar. At mid-century, 70 percent of the households in the United States were comprised of a man who was the breadwinner, a wife who was a homemaker, and three children. Now, such a family constitutes less than 15 percent of America's households.

The majority of married women work outside of the home, there is a substantial population of single parent and single adult households, cohabitation is increasingly common, and there has been a steady increase of children in foster care, on the one hand, and a desire for adoption, on the other. Corresponding to these substantial changes in the American family have been changes in the practice of family law.

Structure, Size, and Division of Labor

In the past 30 years, intact two-parent households have grown smaller and both adults increasingly work outside the home. The birth rate has been in gradual decline (from an average of three children per household in 1960 to two children currently), and 61 percent of all married women are in the labor force. However, even in dual-wage families, women still do most of the child care (Hochschild, 1997), and men make more money than women in comparable lines of work (U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1992).

Single adult households are increasingly common. There has been a decline in the marriage rate since the 1970s, a continued high frequency of divorce, and a declining rate of remarriage. Currently, 40 percent of all women between 15 and 45 years of age are unmarried, as well as 38 percent of all men. Indeed, in 1996, 10 percent of all households were single-parent households: mother and children, 8 percent; father and children, 2 percent. A high percentage of these parents work outside the home: 61 percent of those who have had children but never married (primarily women), and 77 percent of the separated, divorced and widowed who have children in the home. A quarter of America's children live with only one parent. There are 12 million such children, and 90 percent live with their mothers (Arendell, 1990). More than a third of all children will spend all or part of their youthful years in a mother-only household (U. S. Bureau of the Census, 1992; Smith, 1999).

With so many parents in the work force, who is taking care of their children? There seems to be a lack of extended families to provide support at the same time that the business community wants more work from fewer individuals who work harder and smarter (Downs, Costin, & McFadden, 1996). Accordingly, organized day care centers (including preschools and nurseries) currently provide care for 30 percent of the nation's children, nonrelatives (e.g., women in the neighborhood) look after 21 percent, grandparents look after 17 percent, fathers care for 16 percent, and 6 percent of the mothers take their children to work. It also is important to point out that 11 percent of a national sample of grandparents reported that they had primary responsibility for their grandchildren (Center of Demography and Ecology, 1994).

Cohabitation remains an alternative path to marriage. In 1995, 7 percent of all women between 15 and 44 years of age were cohabiting and over half of those currently living together did not think that they would eventually get married. In fact, in another study (Center for Demography and Ecology, 1994) over 40 percent of the women surveyed reported that they had cohabited at some time in their lives, most before their first marriage. Adult children are increasingly returning to the parental home due to job insecurity, divorce, and the high cost of housing (Howe & Strauss, 1992).


The divorce rate, having increased since the 1950s, is now stable, and perhaps declining. …

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