Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Assessing the Importance of Family Structure in Understanding Birth Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Assessing the Importance of Family Structure in Understanding Birth Outcomes

Article excerpt

Few issues in recent years have been characterized by greater disagreement among members of both the academic and policy making communities than has the question of what constitutes a "family." Quasi-humorous debates between national political candidates and television personalities during the most recent presidential election clearly illustrate this point. And, while textbooks written by earlier generations of family scholars contained rather straightforward definitions that supposedly allowed students to distinguish between "family" and "nonfamily," it has become increasingly obvious that both for scholarly research purposes and for program development, meanings have tended to become less rather than more clear. Cheal (1991) effectively demonstrates this point by contending that today's family in postindustrial societies like the United States clearly reflects the ascendance of diversity over uniformity. There is, in other words, no single type, or even small subset of types, that establish the parameters of what constitutes "family."

What all of this means is that despite the continued rhetoric that claims the moral superiority of the traditional nuclear family, a significant percentage of individuals will spend a substantial proportion of their lives in living arrangements that simply do not fit that model. In the words of Scanzoni and Marsiglio (1993, p. 125), this means that in our contemporary world "persons (are) throughout their life courses creating living arrangements in response to ever-shifting situations, some of their own choosing, others imposed on them." Many of these living arrangements will clearly reflect patterns that are quite different from what was once assumed to be the normative model of an adult male and an adult female, married to each other, living together, and with children who are the offspring of that union.

Some of the changes in family structure that have occurred in recent years are best reflected by data that summarize the contemporary situation for black Americans. Two out of three births to black women under 35 years of age, for example, are now out-of-wedlock births (see Burton, 1990; Rindfuss & Parnell, 1989). Rates for other groups are much lower, but even here the separation of marriage and childbearing has become more pronounced (Furstenburg, 1987). Among segments of the black population, there are instances in this country now where the never-married fertility rate is actually higher than the married rate (Rindfuss & Parnell, 1989). Wu and Martinson (1993) have noted that, demographically, this means that a first premarital birth is the modal fertility pattern for recent cohorts of black women, though the pattern is somewhat less common for Hispanic women, and much less common for whites.

Because of this and other factors, a black child today has a relatively low probability of growing up with both parents until the age of 16 (Heaton & Jacobson, 1993; Taylor, Chatters, Tucker, & Lewis, 1990). In fact, higher divorce rates compared with earlier generations mean that children in all ethnic and racial groups have a much increased probability of spending at least part of their growing up years in a single-parent environment (Martin & Bumpass, 1989). Between 1970 and 1988, the proportion of single-parent families increased from 8.9% to 18.1% for whites and from 33.0% to 55.6% for blacks (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1989). Among black Americans, this is now the modal category with a clear majority of families now headed by one parent (Bumpass, 1984; Jaynes & Williams, 1989; Taylor et al., 1990).

While much has been and is being made of these important changes in the family, much empirical work is yet to be done on the various consequences that follow from the changes. The "breakdown of the family" is being blamed by commentators of various persuasions for many of the social ills that characterize our society-increased juvenile crime and delinquency, trends toward decreased performance in the schools, increased substance abuse, and so on (Moynihan, 1967, 1986; for recent social science perspectives, see Goldscheider & White, 1991; Popenoe, 1993). …

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