Heading into the holiday season, American families are starting to stabilize, but they remain far from Norman Rockwell's image of a married couple with children all gathered 'round the table.
According to statistics released Tuesday by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, there are more childless couples, single parents and people living alone than ever before. As of March 1995, only 25% of all households fit the married-with-children mold, down from 40% in 1970. People living alone increased from one-sixth to one-fourth of all households.
But the rate of change slowed dramatically starting in 1990, said the report's author, Ken Bryson. "The move away from the traditional family has virtually stopped."
Carol J. De Vita, senior analyst for the Population Reference Bureau Inc. in Washington, a nonprofit group that analyzes census data, said one reason for the new stability is that baby boomers have reached middle age and have settled into more stable family patterns.
But while the divorce rate has leveled off, more children are being born outside marriage. "The growth of single parents has slowed a little bit but it's still increasing. It's one of the major changes, especially for children," she said.
The American family should be in a holding pattern for the next 10 to 15 years while the boomers continue to form their families, she predicted.
While some analysts expect welfare reform to encourage the growth of two-parent, married families, Bryson said, "That remains to be seen. Family structure is determined by other things, such as lifestyle choices that people have made."
Nothing in the figures suggests the return of the traditional family, the researchers said. "Unless young couples are willing to forego a lot of consumer goods, I don't see how it will be easy for many families to return to the mom stays at home, dad is sole breadwinner type of model," De Vita said.
Besides, she and others observed that the traditional family was never quite as traditional as popular images have it. Bryson said that even in 1950, only 43% of all households were made up of married couples with children.