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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Whither the American Family?

Charles Blow has a column in the New York Times that tries to put some context to the issue of minority--especially African American--families in the US, among whom a majority of children are born out-of-wedlock, despite surveys showing that vast majority of Americans of all racial/ethnic groups believe in marriage. But an important issue limiting the latter is, in Blow's estimation, the vastly higher rates of incarceration among black men.
In the two decades preceding the Great Recession, the American prison population nearly tripled, according to the Pew Center on the States. And make no mistake: mass incarceration rips at the fabric of families and whole communities.
Incarceration rates certainly cannot account for children being born out of wedlock, but it can help account for a lower than preferred overall rate of marriage.

Another, albeit related, perspective on the family came this week from the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.
In 2009, almost two-thirds (64.5%) of children lived with married parents. Although children living in married parent families may experience a wide range of family and household living arrangements, including residing with biological and stepparents, full, half or step siblings, or other related or unrelated household members. The traditional nuclear family consists of two married parents who are both biologically related to all children in the family, and no one else is living in their home. In other words, the child is only living with his or her married biological parents and full siblings. In 2009, half (50.8%) of children in the U.S. were living in a traditional nuclear family. We have witnessed a relatively modest 12% decline over a 13 year period. In 1996, 56% of children were in traditional nuclear families.
So, despite the increase in out-of-wedlock births among almost all groups in the US, it is still the case that nearly two out of three children are living with married parents, even if both parents are not biologically related. Since one of my own children is adopted, I'm not one who thinks that the biological relationship is the most important thing in the world, but having two parents is generally better than just one, for both economic and social reasons. Obviously, the more current or potential husbands/fathers who are in jail, the harder this is going to be.


  1. Thank you for this. I have a question: what is a better indicator of well-being for a child: being raise in one-parent home v. a two-parent home? Or being African-American or white? I recently read an article in Time magazine on African-Americans and I wondered about this.

    1. Good question. You have two dichotomous variables: black/white; one-parent/two-parent, so you can think of a four-fold table. Data would show that a white child with two parents has better life chances than a black child with one parent. But, between those two extremes it gets more complicated. There are certainly going to be many instances in which a black child in a two-parent family will have better life chances than a white child in a one-child family, but it will depend upon other factors such as education of the parents, occupation of the parents, where they live, etc.

  2. Suppose that criminal justice was reformed so that often violent individuals now incarcerated with cause were loosed on their women and children. Is that best for these women and children? My sense is that many in these communities are sort of glad to have uncontrollable elements out of the picture, or at least to have the real threat of strong order.

    Remember, it is the inner-city communities that were a terrifying hell in the early 1990s and that have only just started becoming livable again. Violence and death rates in these places were astonishing when I was growing up two decades ago. It seemed like all the big cities were the murder capital of America at the same time.

    It's no skin off my back if these horrific crime rates returned to our cities since I live in the suburbs, but I do have a little sympathy.