Demography Is Destiny

By Witham, Larry | Insight on the News, April 15, 1996 | Go to article overview

Demography Is Destiny


Witham, Larry, Insight on the News


At mid-decade, the numbers on Americans are in. Analysts cheer or cry depending upon their interpretation of the demographic data.

For the optimist: Divorces have leveled off, the growth rate of single-parent families has dropped by half and more two-parent families with children have formed.

For the realist: Divorce has leveled off at the world's highest rate, single-parent families still increase by 3 percent a year and two-parent families with children are a shrinking portion of America.

"The United States at Mid-Decade," a comprehensive survey of U.S. demographics published by the privately owned Population Reference Bureau, sends conflicting messages about almost all aspects of American life except teen pregnancy. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, teenage girls are bearing a third of all children born out of wedlock, and two-thirds of the fathers are 20 or older. "Men are now preying on girls," says William Mattox, vice president for policy at the Family Research Council. "We have a very serious national problem."

For the most part, the bureau has left it to social critics to decide if trends show changes in attitudes. "I can find very little positive in this data on family," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. "The homes consisting of a married mother and father and their biological children still continue to get smaller as a proportion of households and of all married households."

But the bureau's 48-page report, which covers aging, ethnicity, income, education and other categories, ventures some analysis. "Because young people today are waiting until they are somewhat older and presumably more mature before getting married," write the authors, "marriages may be more selective now than in the past, making the risk of divorce lower." The 1994 divorce rate was 4.6 per 1,000 people, a bit lower than in 1990.

One of the fast-growing demographic categories since 1970 has been "living-alone" households, composed of the elderly or young people in school or careers. (See "Life," March 18.) That has peaked. "Both the older population and the twenty-something population will grow relatively slowly during the next 5 to 10 years," notes report.

Between 1970 and 1995, the percentage of married couples with children dropped by a third, and single-parent families nearly doubled. Specifically, in 1995 married couples with children made up 26 percent of the population; they were 40 percent of the population in 1970.

On the other hand, the number of two-parent families with children jumped by 700,000 in the nineties. …

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