American family today . . . An invaluable
resource for anyone wishing to stay on the
cutting edge of research on family trends.
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia
Retrospective and Prospective
Exactly thirty years ago, I wrote and saw published my first substantive essay on the family crisis in modern America.1 I had recently completed my doctoral dissertation, which had investigated the origins of family policy in Sweden during the 1920s and 1930s.2 A National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, provided through the American Enterprise Institute, represented an opportunity to apply aspects of my Swedish analysis to family trends in America.
There was, to be sure, much to be troubled about in 1979. My essay noted that the divorce rate had risen by 150 percent between 1958 and 1974, with the number of annual breakups reaching one million, and affecting well more than that many children each year. The marriage rate remained reasonably high at 10.6 marriages per 1,000 persons as of 1980, close to the record of 10.9 set in 1972. However, the fertility rate (births per 1,000 women, ages 15–44) had tumbled almost in half from the postwar high of 122.7 in 1957 to the postwar low of 65.0 in 1976, bringing a stunning end to the “Baby Boom.” The proportion of illegitimate births, as a percentage of live births, had reached 17 percent in 1974, double the figure for 1960. Nearly 18 million children lived in one-parent homes during 1977, up from 9 million in 1960.
My essay noted the spate of expert attention given to these signs of family strain. Recent reports had come from the Carnegie Council on Children, the National Commission on Families and Public Policies (a project of the National Conference on Social Welfare), and the Advisory Committee on Child Development of the National Research Council. They shared common traits. Describing causes, they all tended to indict the “American myths”—as one document put it—of family independence, personal responsibility, economic growth, and laissez faire. They faulted the rigid American family model of a breadwinning father and husband married to an isolated, socially dependent housewife. More broadly, they saw family breakup as the consequence of poverty, racial and sexual inequality, poor housing, unemployment, lack of transportation, and poor education. Their family policy agenda was also fairly uniform: greater income security for low income families; legally guaranteed jobs delivering “full employment;” “affirmative action” for racial minorities and women; more comprehensive federal health programs; more and better social services; government funded daycare; more sex education and government provided birth control; greater legal autonomy for children; and “family impact statements.”
I was puzzled by these reports, unable to see the connection between effect and cause. For example, the percentage of children living below the poverty line had actually fallen during the 1960s from 27 to 15 percent. Meanwhile, the unemployment rates for white and black workers were at near record low levels during the same decade. How could poverty and unemployment be causes of the dramatic demographic shifts recorded? In addition, the proportion of married women in the labor market had been climbing steadily since 1950, with an especially strong increase after 1960. At the same time, Medicaid and other new welfare programs had vastly expanded the social service network serving families. I concluded: “Under the causal analysis and policy recommendations advanced by recent family-policy advocates, the 1960s should have evidenced a new blossoming of family life. But exactly the opposite happened. Why?”
Composition of U.S. Households
Sources: Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1986 Edition, Tables 53, 65; 1990 edition, Table 66; 2009 Edition, Table 58.
I focused on two alternate explanations. First: “The sexual revolution has made it vastly more difficult to retain monogamy’s monopoly on sex. Marriages predicated mostly on sexual capability and erotic arousal prove fragile. Parents abandon and adolescents reject all sense of lineage, which monogamy alone can provide.” Second: The “Nuclear Family Norm,” rooted in the modern middle class and reinvigorated after World War Two, came under active assault during the 1960s, and collapsed thereafter. “Revealing evidence of desertion from the old normative family concept,” I wrote, came from “a comparison of successive editions of family sociology textbooks. Those published before 1972 continue to view the middle-class family as the American norm. Those appearing after 1972 abandon normative concepts altogether.” Discarding the husband-wife-children model, a new wave of family professionals favored instead the values of mutability in morals and social structure, choice, experimentation, self-fulfillment, and sexual gratification and also highlighted “the problem of children.”
The Family in America:
Retrospective and Prospective
The Deconstruction of Marriage, Part 1:
The Law and Economics of Unilateral No-Fault Divorce
The Message in the Meltdown:
How the Downturn Reveals Forgotten Family Assets
Counting the Cost of Divorce:
What Those Who Know Better Rarely Acknowledge
The Striking Contradiction of a Sociologist Under the Spell of Feminism
Reviewed by Kay S. Hymowitz
Has the American Family Court System Become Totalitarian?
A Promise to Ourselves
Taken into Custody
Reviewed by Jennifer Roback Morse
Reason to Quiver?
Reviewed by William R. Mattox Jr.
The Marriage Tango
Bad Girls Go Everywhere
Beside Every Successful Man
Reviewed by Janice Shaw Crouse