An Analysis of New Census Data on Family Structure, Education, and Income
A report and commentary prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families by Shannon Cavanagh, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology & Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin, 512.471.8319, firstname.lastname@example.org
A set of tables released by the U.S. Census this month provides new evidence of how much the structure, composition, and life-course of American families have changed over the past 55 years. Poverty figures in the same report show that having two parents may help in keeping children out of poverty, but by no means guarantee it. And other research shows that the relationship between income and family structure goes both ways: People who are well above the poverty line are more likely to get and stay married.
In 1960, according to Census figures from that year, nearly 90 percent American children lived in two-parent families, with only 8 percent in mother-only families. A miniscule 1 percent resided in father-only families, and 3 percent lived either with grandparents, other relatives, or in other arrangements (Census, 1960).
By 2014, according to figures newly released by the U.S. Census Bureau (CPS ASEC, 2015), almost a quarter of American children (24 percent) lived in a mother-only household, a 300 percent increase since 1960. Four percent lived in a father-only household, still a small percentage but a four-fold increase since 1960. Another 4 percent were living either with grandparents or in other arrangements. Just 68 percent of American children were living in two-parent families.
These figures actually understate the extent of change in family life, because children today experience more transitions while growing up than children did half a century ago. Although at any point in time a majority of children may be living with two biological parents, the prevalence of divorce and remarriage, along with rising non-marital fertility, ensures that more than half of all children will spend some time before they graduate from high school living outside a “traditional” nuclear family (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008).
Family structure varies by parental education and income level
Of children living with two married parents, more than half (52 percent) have at least one parent with a college degree, compared to only 13 percent of children in cohabiting (or unmarried) parent families and 17 percent of those in mother-only families. These figures reflect a growing gap in marriage rates by education. As late as 1970, men and women with a high school degree were more likely to marry than those with a college degree. Today they are less likely to have ever married, and much more likely to be divorced, than their college-educated counterparts (Coontz, 2014). They are also far more likely to have a child outside of marriage.
The relationship between education, marital status, and income is complicated. Employment prospects and real wages for adults without a post-high school credential have eroded more or less steadily since the 1970s, leaving more Americans stuck in precarious, low-paid jobs with few benefits. Limited economic prospects, in turn, tend to translate into lower marriage rates, higher rates of divorce, and more cohabiting unions (Cherlin, 2014; Carbone & Cahn, 2014– https://contemporaryfamilies.org/stability-instability-brief-report/). Meanwhile, youths from higher-income parents, married or unmarried, have pulled dramatically ahead of youths from lower-income families in their rates of college completion (Putnam, 2015; Cahalan & Perna, 2015). For example, in 2013, 77 percent of young people from families in the top income quartile earned at least a bachelor’s degree by the time they turned 24, up from 40 percent in 1970. Only 9 percent of young people from the lowest income bracket did the same in 2013, a much more modest rise from 6 percent in 1970. When the sample was limited to young people who actually entered college, the completion rate for the most economically advantaged rose to 99 percent, compared to only one in five of the least advantaged (Cahalan & Perna, 2015). These differences point to widening inequality in social mobility in the US today.
Differences in economic security and relationship stability among parents affect their children’s future prospects. Better-educated parents are much more likely to bear a child within marriage, and much less likely to divorce, than less educated parents. Married parents generally have more time, money, and resources to invest in their children, improving their future academic, health, and social outcomes. Children born to less educated parents are exposed both to greater economic strain and greater partner instability.
Not surprisingly, children living with a single parent are especially likely to live near or below the poverty level. Still, being raised in a two-parent family does not guarantee children economic security. Almost half of children (48 percent) in low-income families, defined as those whose incomes are below 200 percent of the federal poverty threshold (FPT), and more than one-third (36 percent) of children in families living below the poverty threshold, live with married parents. In fact, the total number of children living in or near poverty – 15.2 million with married parents and 16.7 million with a single parent – is about the same (Jaing, Ekono, & Skinner 2015).
One way that poor and near-poor families get by is through SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) or food stamps. The new census figures show that, even after five years of “recovery,” the number of children receiving food stamps remains higher than it was before the start of the Great Recession in 2007. In 2014, an estimated 16 million children, or about one in five, received food stamp assistance, compared with the roughly 9 million children, or one in eight, that received this form of assistance prior to the recession (CPS ASEC, 2015).
So poverty remains a striking problem for American children. Financial security, even more than household composition, shapes children’s everyday experiences in ways that contribute to growing inequality. Between the mid-1970s and the mid-2000s, the difference between what the richest 20 percent and the poorest 20 percent of parents spent on enrichment activities for their children nearly tripled (Duncan & Murnane, 2014). Today, a 20 percentage point difference in participation in extracurricular sports exists for children in families at or above 200 percent (42.5 percent) compared to those children in poverty (22.5 percent). The difference between children of two married parents and children with a single parent is only 10 percentage points (Hofferth, 2015). Although having a second parent in the household may be important, having financial resources may be even more important, and having a second parent by no means guarantees such resources.
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