The Changing American Family

Sociologists Zhenchao Qian and Kristi Williams examine the transformation of the ‘traditional’ American family and challenge the conventional wisdom that marriage lifts single mothers out of poverty.

Sociologists Zhenchao Qian and Kristi Williams examine the transformation of the ‘traditional’ American family and challenge the conventional wisdom that marriage lifts single mothers out of poverty.


“There is no longer any such thing as a typical American family,” said Zhenchao Qian, professor and chair, Department of Sociology.

Analyzing data from the 2000 Census and the 2008-2010 American Community Survey, Qian found that across the board, regardless of race, young people delayed marriage longer than ever before, permanent singlehood increased, and divorce and remarriage continued to rise.

From 2008 to 2010, nearly half of young adults between the ages of 20 and 24 lived with their parents. During the same time, the percentage of U.S.-born women of that age who had ever been married declined from 31 percent in 2000 to 19 percent in 2008 to 2010. The decline for men was similar, dropping from 21 percent to 11 percent.

Not only are young people putting off getting married, but also, when they do, they are more likely to get divorced and remarried; a cycle Qian calls the “marriage-go-round.” Among currently married men, Qian found the percentage of those who were married more than once increased from 17 percent in 1980 to 25 percent in 2008 to 2010.

Most troubling is a polarizing divide that means white people, the educated and the economically secure, have much more stable family situations than minorities, the uneducated and the poor. Viewed against a background of widening gaps between the haves and have-nots in America, this is a particularly stark divide.

“Race, education, the economy and immigration status weigh heavily on how well families fare financially,” explained Qian.

“Economic inequality is key to the polarization of American families, and the disadvantages of children living in single and unstable families will just worsen the racial and ethnic inequalities we already have in this country.”

One group has remained stable and most closely resembles what was once considered the American norm and that is the immigrant community.

Between 2000 and 2010, “immigrants married at a higher level at every age-group compared with the U.S. born,” said Qian. “Their relatively high marriage rates have propped up the national marriage rate
and mitigated the decline in marriage.”

Married individuals are happier, healthier and have better socioeconomic status than their unmarried counterparts. Because of these benefits, marriage promotion was included in the 1996 welfare reform bill—the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act—which sought to end dependence of low-income single mothers on government benefits. And, since 2001, the federal government has spent $800 million on programs to encourage marriage.

But does marriage improve the economic situation for all, especially single moms living in poverty?

Not according to Kristi Williams, associate professor of sociology, and author of a new paper on the issue for the Council on Contemporary Families.

“Marriage isn’t the problem or the answer for single women living in poverty,” said Williams. “In fact, in some cases, marriage is actually risky for a woman who is already a single mother.”

Williams’ paper reveals that approximately 64 percent of the single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached ages 35-44. Moreover, single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.

“You have to remember that for many single women with children living in poverty, their choices for a marriage partner are constrained by their circumstances.”

Research shows that single mothers living in poor neighborhoods are likely to marry men who won’t or can’t help them out of poverty. These men are likely to have children from other partnerships, lack a high school diploma, and have been incarcerated or have substance abuse problems.

“If we are truly interested in the future well-being of these women and their children, we need to base our public policies on empirical evidence and not on opinion or political expediency,” said Williams.

Williams and Qian agree that attacking poverty, and by extension widening the options for single women with children, is a long-term process, but a necessary one if we are to see marriage rates among the poor stabilize with both economic and emotional benefits.

“We need to address the lack of high-quality, publicly funded daycare to enable single women with children to work; the need for a more robust parental leave policy; and the need for good jobs with growing wages at the bottom of the income scale,” said Williams.

“It isn’t that having a lasting and successful marriage is a cure for living in poverty,” said Williams. “Living in poverty is a barrier to having a lasting and successful marriage.”

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