Family and Living Arrangements - Fewer "traditional" Families

households children women parent

One of the more significant social changes to occur in the last decades of the twentieth century was a shift away from the "traditional" family structure—a married couple with their own child or children living in the home. The U.S. Census Bureau divides households into two major categories: family households (defined as groups of two or more people living together related by birth, marriage, or adoption) and nonfamily households (consisting of a person living alone or an individual living with others to whom he or she is not related). As a percentage of all households, family households declined over the period 1950 to 2000. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1950 family households accounted for 89.4% of all households. By 2000 that figure had dropped to 68.1%. The rise in nonfamily households is the result of many factors, some of the most prominent being:

  • People are postponing marriage until later in life and are thus living alone or with nonrelatives for a longer period of time.
  • A rising divorce rate translates into more people living alone or with nonrelatives.
  • A rise in the number of people who cohabit before or instead of marriage results in higher numbers of non-family households.
  • The oldest members of our population are living longer and often live in nonfamily households as widows/widowers or in institutional settings.

Although family households were a smaller proportion of all households in 2000 than in 1950, they were still the majority of households. The Census Bureau breaks family households into three categories: (1) married couples with their own children, (2) married couples without children, and (3) other family households. The last category includes single-parent households and households made up of relatives (such as siblings) who live together or grandparents who live with grandchildren without members of the middle generation being present.

Of the three categories, the "other family household" grew the most between 1970 and 2000, growing from 10.6% of all households in 1970 to 16% in 2000. The "traditional" family household experienced the greatest decline during the period. Married couples with their own children made up 40.3% of households in 1970 but only 24.1% in 2000. (See Figure 2.1.)

One- and Two-Parent Families

Among all families with children, two-parent families accounted for 87.2% of families in 1970 and 68.3% in 2002. (See Table 2.1.) Overall, most households with children are still headed by married couples. But the decline in the percentage of children being raised in two-parent households has been the subject of much study and attention.

In 2002 31.7% of families with children were maintained by just one parent, compared to 12.8% in 1970. (See Table 2.1.) In 2002 mothers were single parents 4.5 times as often as fathers. In 1970 that figure was 8.7 times as often; in 1970 there were very few single-father families. During that thirty-two-year period, the number of single-father families increased more than fivefold while single-mother households increased 2.9 times.

The proportion of families headed by a single parent increased from 1980 to 2003 in all racial and ethnic groups. African-American children were the least likely of all racial and ethnic groups to live in two-parent households (36% in 2003). (See Table 2.2.)

The rise in single-parent families is the result of several factors, all pointing to a change in American lifestyles and values. Among these changes are an escalating divorce rate and an increase in the number of children born to unmarried women.


Family households, 1970 and 2002
(Numbers in thousands)
All family groups
One parent Two-parent families as percent of total
Total with own children under 18 Maintained by
Year Two-parent Total Mother Father
*Persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.
(NA) Data not available.
Notes: Data for 2002 use population controls based on Census 2000 and an expanded sample of households designed to improve state estimates of children with health insurance. Family groups with children include all parent-child situations (two-parent and one-parent): those that maintain their own household (family households with own children); those that live in the home of a relative (related subfamilies); and those that live in the home of a nonrelative (unrelated subfamilies). Data based on the Current Population Survey (CPS).
SOURCE: Adapted from "FM-2. All Parent/Child Situations, by Type, Race, and Hispanic Origin of Householder or Reference Person: 1970 to Present," in Families and Living Arrangements: March 2002," Current Population Survey Reports, U.S. Census Bureau, June 12, 2003, (accessed August 24, 2004)
All races
2002 38,472 26,271 12,201 9,969 2,232 68.3
1970 29,626 25,823 3,803 3,410 393 87.2
2002 30,550 22,381 8,169 6,423 1,746 73.3
1970 26,115 23,477 2,638 2,330 307 89.9
2002 5,635 2,179 3,456 3,067 389 38.7
1970 3,219 2,071 1,148 1,063 85 64.3
Hispanic origin*
2002 6,050 3,936 2,114 1,704 410 65.1
1980 2,194 1,626 568 526 42 74.1
1970 (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA) (NA)

According to the 2002 American Community Survey, in that year the number of divorced individuals reached 22.1 million, more than five times the 4.3 million divorces in 1970. According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), every year since 1972 more than one million children have experienced their parents' divorce. The NCHS also reports that the rate of children whose parents divorce has risen. During the 1950s only six out of every thousand children experienced parental divorce during a given year, compared with nineteen per thousand in the 1990s.

The rise in the number of single-parent family households can also be attributed to the dramatic rise in the number of births to unmarried women. In its publication Births: Final Data for 2002, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 34% of births in 2002 were to unmarried women. Nonmarital birth rates differed significantly by race and ethnicity. Unmarried Hispanic women had the highest birthrate in 2002, at 87.9 births per one thousand women of childbearing age. (See Table 2.3.) The birthrate for unmarried African-American women that year was 66.2 births per one thousand women, which had fallen steeply from a birthrate of 90.5 births per one thousand women in 1990. The rate for unmarried, non-Hispanic white women was 27.8 births per one thousand


women. The rate of births to unmarried women was highest among women in their twenties; the birth rate for unmarried women ages twenty to twenty-four years was 70.5 births per one thousand women, and the rate for women ages twentyfive to twenty-nine was 61.5 births per one thousand women. Unmarried teen birth rates had fallen steadily since the 1990s.

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