The breakup of American families, particularly among blacks, is being fueled by the stresses of poverty, a new report from the U.S. Census Bureau has found.
The report, being released today, is the first national study of how family stability is affected by poverty and the employment status of parents. Among its findings:
* Couples heading two-parent families are nearly twice as likely to separate or divorce if they're living in poverty.
* Poor African-American families are nearly twice as likely to break up as poor white or Hispanic families, which may be at least partly explained by the fact that black poverty is deeper than white poverty.
* The families with the best chance of staying together are those in which the husband works full time and the wife works part time.
The findings represent important new evidence in the investigation of the disturbing national decline in two-parent families and increase in single-parent households over the past two decades -- a trend that has been particularly pronounced among blacks.
"This report is a striking reminder of the ways in which strong family values have to include a strong economic foundation for families," said Clifford Johnson, family support director for the Children's Defense Fund.
The report, authored by demographer Donald Hernandez, confirms the connection between poverty and marital breakups that has been indicated by earlier social science research.
Whatever the explanation, two-parent families have been in decline across the board for the past two decades. A Census Bureau report, published last summer, showed that
only 72 percent of American children lived in two-parent families in 1990, compared to 85 percent in 1970.
But the figures were worse for blacks. Fifty-nine percent of African-American children were in two-parent families in 1970, but just 36 percent in 1990.
A similar pattern emerges in the Hernandez report, which was based on several Census Bureau surveys between 1983 and 1988 that tracked more than 33,000 families for more than two years each.
Among whites, 7 percent of all two-parent families were dissolved by divorce or separation in an average two-year period, the study determined. But the figure was 12 percent for those living in poverty.
Income-related differences were also found for blacks -- but the percentages were bigger. In a two-yearperiod, 11 percent of all African-American families break up, and 21 percent of those that are poor.
(Among Hispanic families, the dissolution rates were about the same for poor and non-poor households: 11 percent and 9 percent, respectively.)
Among white families with children, Mr. Hernandez noted, it didn't make much difference whether one or both parents had a job; in either case, 7 percent of the families broke up. But among blacks, the breakup rate was 9 percent if both parents were working, but more than 18 percent if just the father had a job.
Mr. Hernandez said that suggests that some black families apparently don't feel a sense of economic security unless there are two incomes. And a big reason for that, he said, is that black incomes tend to be significantly lower than those of whites.