It is a familiar message, echoed on television, in Census Bureau reports and in the conventional wisdom of our culture: The two-parent family is in decline.
But is it? Some of the newest evidence suggests that the tidal flow away from two-parent families peaked years ago and may even be starting to change course. And the strongest hints of a change in behavior are emerging from low-income and minority communities, groups that have paid the greatest price for the family breakdown since the 1960s.
From pop music lyrics proclaiming "Let's Get Married" to talk in the street, at least some signs suggest that obituaries for the nuclear family are premature.
Indeed, an analysis of year-to-year government data found that the proportion of African American children living with two married parents--although still near record lows--rose more than 4% from 1995 to 2000. The percentage of Latino children living with two married parents also appears to have risen a bit but at a statistically uncertain pace.
The move away from marriage "really seems to have come to a halt," said Wendell Primus, a poverty expert at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who, with colleague Allen Dupree, conducted the new analysis. "In 1995 to 2000, things really shifted quite dramatically."
The causes of the shift remain uncertain. Theories range from changing cultural values to the economic boom of the 1990s, shifting welfare rules and stricter enforcement of child-support obligations.
Whatever the reasons, some experts say the new numbers are just the latest sign that, contrary to popular understanding, a decades-old pattern of social behavior may be starting to shift.
"It's an important story," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a private research organization in New York that focuses on family issues. "That's what's new here--that something that just blew through society in the '70s, '80s and early '90s came to a dead stop."
The new numbers come from the government's Current Population Survey, which queried 50,000 households on a range of issues and enabled the researchers to consider year-by-year trends in recent decades. And they follow other signs that the institution of marriage is not on its deathbed.
Social scientists have detected a modest, little-publicized drop in the divorce rate since the late 1980s, Blankenhorn said. In addition, they have noted a decline in the birth rate of unmarried black and Latino women during the 1990s. Similarly, the nonpartisan Urban Institute has reported that the percentage of low-income children in single-parent households dropped 3%, to 41%, from 1997 to 1999. That conclusion was based on the research organization's ongoing survey of more than 42,000 families.
"Generally, the number of kids living with single mothers alone seems to have dropped, and the drop is larger among lower-income households," said Gregory Acs, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. "The drumbeat of bad news we've heard for 25 years has abated, in the data at least."
And despite a confusing series of recent Census Bureau reports, demographers generally agree that a majority of children live in two-parent families, although the numbers had been slipping since the 1960s.
To be sure, others were much more wary in reacting to the new numbers. The Current Population Survey does not distinguish between families in which a child lives with two married biological parents and those in which one or both of the married parents is not related to the child by birth.
According to Primus' analysis, the percentage of African American children living with two married parents last year was 38.9%, compared with 34.8% in 1995. For Latinos the figure last year was 66.2%, compared with 64.2% in 1995. The figure of 78.2% for whites last year was considered essentially the same as the 78.5% in 1995.
The researchers found a similar trend among the lowest-income groups, with a less dramatic shift among the more affluent.
"It's potentially an interesting trend," said Kristin A. Moore, president of Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. "The question is what kind of families are being formed--and why? Is it public policy or is it the economy?"
At the street level, far from Washington think tanks, the findings were greeted with some uncertainty.
In Los Angeles, a welfare rights activist said he had not detected any "huge" shift toward marriage and the formation of new families. But he said there did appear to be some tendency among people who once lived separately to pool their resources, particularly those who no longer qualify for welfare or anticipate having their benefits cut off.
"People say, 'I'm going to move in with so and so, given the cutoff,' " said Saul Sarabia, an activist for People on Welfare, a nonprofit welfare-rights effort that serves a largely African American and Latino clientele in South Los Angeles. "I do see some of that, and I hear talk of that."
A more traditional attitude was also reflected last summer in the hit tune "Let's Get Married" by Jagged Edge, which reached No. 1 on the R&B;/hip-hop charts:
"Meet me at the altar in your white dress.
We ain't getting no younger, we might as well do it . . .
Girl let's just get married, I just wanna get married."
Even population experts began to wonder if the song was hinting at a change in values: "I don't know if it's significant or not--but I think it's interesting," said M. Belinda Tucker, a UCLA scholar on marital trends.
Some experts pointed out that buoyant economic times lift a stressful financial burden from many households and might help explain why some manage to hold together. Others wondered if the new numbers provide the first glimmers of a payoff in policy changes intended to foster marriage among welfare recipients. The 1996 welfare reform legislation, for example, imposed rules that female applicants identify the father of their children. Some states, meanwhile, revised welfare rules that had the effect of penalizing married couples.
In addition, fathers who once might have fled child support obligations came under new pressure to keep up with their obligations, due to the emergence of computerized systems that track the men through their Social Security numbers.
Ron Haskins, a scholar at the centrist Brookings Institution who helped craft the 1996 welfare overhaul legislation, suggested that an array of influences could be at play. Welfare reform's tough work requirements might be discouraging some low-income women from choosing single motherhood, he speculated. He also wondered if, in the 1990s boom, women had greater hopes for their own future and chose to avoid having children out of wedlock.
"Something is going on out there, and it sure looks like people are rethinking [behavior], and values are playing a role," he said.
"This is not enough to be called a huge and significant social change, but it could be the beginning of a substantial movement in the other direction," said Robert Rector, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
The entire subject has been the source of great confusion and controversy in recent weeks. In one widely misunderstood report, the Census Bureau proclaimed that "the nuclear family rebounds." But that finding was based on a limited definition of the nuclear family and did not look beyond 1996. Last month, a 10-year census report suggested that the traditional nuclear family of parents and children continued its long-term slide in the 1990s.
Certainly, the numbers are in for close inspection as Congress prepares to consider the welfare reform vote of 1996. Debate on the possible extension of that law is likely to begin later this year. One of the Bush administration goals is to push for policies that will foster marriage and responsible fatherhood, an area that welfare-reform advocates have sought for years.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
New data suggest that, contrary to conventional wisdom, the decline in two-parent families has stopped and may even have reversed.
% of children of each group living with married parents
% of children of each group living with single mother
Source:Current Population Survey and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities