Traditional family said to be on verge of being the exception, not the rule

August 30, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- The conventional model of American family life -- a married couple with kids and a stable home -- is on the verge of becoming the exception rather than the rule, the Census Bureau reports.

In a study certain to fuel the "family values" debate, Census Bureau statisticians said yesterday that only 50.8 percent of American children live in a traditional "nuclear" family. They define a nuclear family as one where both biological parents are present and all children were born after the marriage. It excludes households with single or divorced parents and other adults or children.

The study is based on 1991 data and does not contain comparable figures for previous years. But it squares with other reports in recent years that show a decline in the number of traditional families.

Census officials say the increasing prevalence of nontraditional family structures reflects powerful societal trends that cannot be easily reversed: gradual migration from rural communities to cities and suburbs, growing ranks of working mothers, declining church and community influence, expanded assistance to poor households and greater tolerance of divorce and single parenting.

"With more and more women bearing children out of wedlock, along with high divorce rates, more children than ever are spending at least part of their childhood in single-parent families or other alternative family situations," said Stacy Furukawa, author of the report.

The findings are likely to provide ammunition for political candidates and social critics who argue that policies and practices that undermine "family values" contribute to many of society's ills, including crime and broken homes.

"It's the kind of thing that can have a substantial impact on the political situation," said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University. "It tells us that the glass is half empty, confirming the popular suspicion that America is going to hell in a handbasket."

The new report did not cite corresponding data from previous years. However, its findings are similar to earlier, little-noticed analysis of census data that clearly showed a steep decline in the percentage of children living in traditional nuclear families over the last two decades.

Donald Hernandez, the Census Bureau official who published a book, "America's Children," on the subject, found that the number of children who lived in nuclear families was 57 percent in 1980 and 66 percent in 1970. But he reported that the number was 51 percent in 1988, virtually identical to the 1991 census figure, which could indicate a leveling of the decline.

"There are very powerful and strong forces leading to the increase of divorce and the change away from the traditional family," said Mr. Hernandez, who is the chief of the Census Bureau's marriage and family statistics branch. "That does not mean public policy cannot do something to turn around that trend. But they would have to be very powerful policies to have any impact."

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