“You wanna watch ‘Ozzie and Harry,’ ‘Stepfather Knows Best,’ or ‘The Little Halfway House on the Prairie’?” This question, which appeared in a May 18 Lexington Herald-Leader editorial cartoon, epitomizes the changes that have occurred in the “traditional” family over the years.
After the man in the cartoon asked his wife this question she retorted, “Whatever … I’m leaving you!”
Recent census data underscoring the decline of the nuclear family has many Americans up in arms and others looking at the figures as an offering of statistics, but not the heart of why, or how, things have changed.
A May 21 editorial in the Arizona Republic pointed out that the obvious response to the data–which reflected a decrease in married couples with minor children, an increase in single-parent homes and an increase in people who live alone–should be reexamined to consider the deeper meaning behind the numbers.
“The U.S. census, from which the new report on U.S. households emerges, offers a snapshot of reality, not always its essence,” read the editorial.
The phrase “nuclear family,” meaning a married man and woman living with their children, was introduced in 1949 by the anthropologist George Murdock, according to a May 18 New York Times editorial. And, for the past half-century, the United States has reflected on the state of the nuclear family as a leading moral indicator.
Now, for the first time, nuclear families account for less than a quarter of all households–23.5 percent, to be exact.
“It is certainly possible to read these figures as unwelcome deviations from a fundamental norm … but the dominance of the nuclear family in the 1950s and 1960s was just as much an expression of prevailing economic and sociological forces as its lack of dominance is now,” read the Times editorial.
“The broad social shifts underlying these data–the prevalence of women working outside the home, the decline of agricultural households, the ever-growing mobility of Americans, the postponing of marriage and childbearing, the extension of life spans–do not necessarily point toward a more fragile social structure,” the Times editorial continued.
Rather, these shifts point to the flexibility and the increasing complexity of American family arrangements. The Times editorial pointed out that what the new census data underscore is an increasing awareness that the nuclear family is not the only kind of family or even the only healthy kind of family. No type of family can really be recognized to the exclusion of all others, read the editorial.
A May 18 USA TODAY column by Julianne Malveaux pointed out the lengths to which public policy makers must go to ensure that the increasingly diverse family of present and future is accommodated and preserved.
“Of special concern is the growing number of single mothers and fathers highlighted by the Census,” wrote Malveaux. “These families especially need support: a larger child-tax credit, affordable childcare, better schools.”
As families with children become a smaller minority, the task of generating support for children’s issues grows in intensity. The USA TODAY column advised, “So when politicians say they’re family friendly, ask them what kind of family they are talking about.”
The Arizona Republic editorial pointed out that although the number of single parents is disturbing, many of those parents will succeed in raising wonderful adults.
But don’t expect the census to record that, read the editorial. “It can’t. It’s only a snapshot. Reality is more complicated.”
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.