Family in America: What does it mean?

Listen to this article

Search keywords and phrases like “family structure” or “family form” into Google Scholar, and watch as pages of outdated article from the 1980s populate your screen.

The reason is because we now know that how a family functions is more important than how many members make up that family, the sex and romantic orientation of the parents, or presence of two parents as opposed to one parent (or grandparent). It’s not that the data isn’t significant, but it isn’t the primary force steering a family towards success or imminent hardship. Though factors like divorce, step parenting, and single parenting undoubtedly shape some aspects of how families interact on a daily basis, the research today points to other reasons why some kids thrive and others struggle. We have also redefined family to include more than adoptive and biological, two-parent or one-parent or blended.

Past research trends tended to tie correlation with causation regarding unwed and minority parents with negative outcomes, when the real problems may have been due to factors like income, and lower educational standards in school within low-income districts. is a wealth of information. 2015 tables cover everything from modern living arrangements of couples to grandparents as parents.

Unsurprisingly, women are about five times as likely as men to be raising a child with no spouse present. Roughly 85 percent of men were parenting children with the help of a partner, while the same could only be said for about 78 percent of women (Table AD-2a, 2015 Census). Of course, most of this is logistics, as women who carry children to term have fewer options than men when it comes to abandoning their offspring and somehow living with themselves afterward.

While the number of single-parent households has grown, the rate of teenage pregnancies has decreased. Another surprising and fascinating change in today’s family makeup? Grandparents raising their grandchildren are a rapidly increasing population. Economic instability, the rising costs of higher education (which also means a lower chance of rising above one’s current income bracket), longer lifespans, and expensive childcare have all contributed to this phenomenon. Add on that the later ages of maturation in today’s generations of youth — many of whom are living with their parents into their mid and late twenties, or at least moving back home — and you have yourself a peculiar and unique development in familial construction.

More highlights on today’s “All-American Family” include:

  • A somewhat lower divorce rate than we’ve seen in the past few years, partially due to the rise in cohabitation and a higher age of first marriage (Combination of various sources, from the US Census to our CDC National Marriage and Divorce Rate).
  • A low rate of adoption, still, for both men and women, at about .09 percent for men and 1.4 percent for women between the years 2006-2010 (National Center for Health Statistics).
  • According to a 2011 Report on childcare and income, families living below the poverty line were paying roughly 20 percent more of their monthly paycheck than those living above the poverty line (Who’s Minding the Kids).

Naturally, this information all begs two questions: (1) What is the significance of these numbers? And (2) Why is this important to anyone who doesn’t have children?

The answer to the first question can be summed up by the worst Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

Rather than judging these facts to be good or bad, we should try to anticipate how they might affect the needs of those affected. We don’t have better or worse families today, whether we are assessing based on how we function or how we look on the annual Christmas card. It’s tempting to look at the number of children raised by single parents and grandparents as a failure in the system, but people forget how many children in the past were raised by an abusive parent simply because the abused parent couldn’t bring themselves to get a divorce.

Others were kept in a home with a parent fighting addiction, before children’s rights were taken seriously. Others were working in unsafe environments to make money before grandparents were living long enough and well enough to help support their grown children and small grandchildren through times of poverty and intense hardship.

It’s easier to judge an honest failure than a phony success, and we are slowly coming to realize that (historically and currently) our nation has not prioritized family welfare as we should, despite all the resources we have available. We talk a big talk, but that’s about as meaningful as those Christmas photos we all send out. No one knows the truth of a matter by looking at a glossy picture. The significance of all the statistics on family structure is that we are still learning how to support every family.

As for encouraging the non-childrearing folks to give a shit, that’s above anyone’s paygrade. However, when I hear friends complain about paying taxes that ultimately go to further education for children and support family resources in the community, I usually bite my tongue. Maybe I shouldn’t.

At some point, it seems fitting to remind them that these children will grow up to be the decision-makers, moochers, politicians, criminals, parents, teachers, security personnel and (groan) TSA agents of tomorrow. (Sorry, airport bouncers.) In other words, why wouldn’t you want to promote a favorable outcome rather than stay completely uninvolved?

Considering that we still lag behind almost every other developed country in terms of childcare provisions, prompt and affordable healthcare, and lowering our embarrassingly high infant mortality rates, it appears we could use some extra tax money channeled in the right direction.

A simpler response could be, of course, that most of us have people we call family … and those of us who don’t feel a poignant sense of loss. We are only as strong as the connections we allow ourselves to build, both internally and externally, as individuals and a nation.

Here’s hoping 2017 brings understanding and equity for families of all sizes and forms.

Top photo courtesy of Matt Groenig