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Exploding the Myth of the Nuclear Family's Demise

Census: Report finds that from 1991-96, portion of kids living with both biological parents rose to 56%. But, "It's not entirely a clear picture," author says.

April 13, 2001|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The nuclear family of yesteryear--mom and dad living with each other and their biological children--may not be as endangered as it sometimes seems. The percentage of children living in these traditional families rose during the early 1990s.

At the same time, other families became increasingly complex, with more stepparents, grandparents and adoptive parents raising children, the Census Bureau says in a report being released today.

It is the second report on the living arrangements of children, and updates findings from a 1991 study. The new data examine the 71.5 million children living in the United States in fall 1996.

The report, based on a survey of 37,000 households, rejects and builds upon common perceptions of increasingly fractured families.

"It's not entirely a clear picture," said the Census Bureau's Jason Fields, the report's author.

Most unexpected may be the rise in the portion of children living in so-called nuclear families--where the children live with their biological mother and father and no one else. From 1991 to 1996, it rose from 51% to 56%.

But this does not necessarily mean that more couples are staying together. Rather, as the total number of children increased, more of them were being born into traditional households, Fields said.

That is partly because couples married or began having children later in life, he said.

"People who delayed marriage for education or career and have decided at an older age than in the past, 'Now we're getting married,' " he said. "More marriages and more families are being formed, and a lot of them are forming as these traditional nuclear families."

In addition, births to teenagers and to unmarried older women have fallen, helping to slow a three-decade climb in the number of children living with single parents. Still, 33% of babies are born to unmarried women, making those children's chances slim for life in a nuclear family.

Whatever the reason, an increase in the number of children living with their biological parents bodes well for those children, said Kristin Moore, president of the research firm Child Trends.

"From the point of view of children, this is the most auspicious family form," she said.

Two-parent families raising their biological children tend to be better off economically, live in better neighborhoods and attend better schools, she said. "They have the advantage of stability."

But the portion of children living in any sort of two-parent family--including nuclear families as well as those with stepparents and other arrangements--continued to fall, from 73% in 1991 to 71% in 1996.

The report found that all sorts of nontraditional family arrangements are becoming more common. Specifically, in fall 1996:

* Single parents: About one in four children lived with a single parent, up slightly from 1991. Nine times out of 10, they were living with their mothers. Still, 1.8 million children lived with their single fathers.

About 3.3 million children were living with a single parent and another adult. In nearly half these cases, the other adult was the child's other parent, but the couple were not married.

* Blended families: About 16.5% of children live in a family re-created because of remarriage, with stepparents, step-siblings or half-siblings. That compares with about 15% in 1991.

* Adopted children: About 1.5 million children were living with adoptive parents, but only about half of those were living with two adoptive parents. In most other cases, stepparents had adopted the biological children of their new spouses.

* Multi-generational: About 5.9% of children lived in a home with at least three generations, usually because a grandparent was present. That is up slightly from 5.7% in 1991.

* Other relatives: 14% of children, or 10.3 million, were living in "extended families," where the household includes at least one person outside the nuclear family. In 1991, it was 12.5%.

Children living with just one parent were four times as likely to live in extended families as others, as single parents look for others to share resources and provide extra support.

Children in racial minority groups were more than twice as likely than nonminority children to live in extended families, the report said. In some cases, that is because new family members immigrated to this country and moved in with relatives.

The report found that black children were half as likely to live in two-parent families. Blacks, American Indians and Alaska Natives were all more likely than whites to live in blended families.

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