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D. Blankenhorn: Reversing the Trend Toward the Post-Nuclear Family

Presented to Assembly 2001, “Global Violence: Crisis and Hope,” New York, October 19-22, 2001

Scholars have said that as a world, we’re moving toward what they call the post-nuclear family. The United States is said to be leading the trend. This trend has four characteristics. One is the widespread breakup of the nucleus of the nuclear family. That is the mother-father bond. We have 31 percent of all children born to never-married parents. Forty-one percent of all first-time childbirths in the United States are to never-married mothers. So for the first time in human history, a lot of nations, particularly in the West and led by the United States, are seeing the breakup of the nucleus of the nuclear family. That’s the first characteristic.

The second characteristic is that the family is getting smaller. In the United States in the late 1950s the marital birthrate was about 3.7. Moreover the average family typically had almost four children, statistically speaking. Now the marital birthrate in the United States is about 1.6, which is a significantly huge drop and less than the replacement level.

The third characteristic of this post-nuclear family trend is the increasing inability of the family to carry out its basic functions, particularly the socialization of children and the passing on of a culture and character and competence to the next generation. And what used to be done by the family is increasingly being done by other institutions in society. In the United States, various professionals and in particular the media are raising the children. And now, instead of acquiring your identity in the home, you purchase it in the marketplace or at the mall. Or you get it from the peer group or from the popular culture. So the weakening of the family is a character shaping, culture transmitting institution.

And fourth is the weakening of what we might call “familism,” or the value of the family in the society at large. The value of the family weakens, as other values grow stronger, particularly in the United States. The values of individualism or individual self-expression begin to dominate or make the value of the family less important.

Scholars have said that in the 1990s—an era widely discussed— we were moving globally led by the West, particularly by the United States, toward this post-nuclear family system whereby the modern or traditional married couple, the mother-father child-raising unit, would no longer be the dominant aspiration for people and would in fact no longer be the dominant way that children are raised in society.

And indeed in the United States in the 1990s, and probably for the first time in world history, the numbers of children who would spend their first 18 years living with their two married parents was roughly equivalent to those who would not.

The second point I want to make is that this trend stopped. It just stopped. The proportion of children living with their two married, biological parents stopped going down in about 1995. And since 1995 this number has actually begun to tip up. Now about 64 percent of all US children live with their two biological, married parents.

The proportion of all children living in a two-parent home is now at about 72 percent. It reached an all-time low in 1996 and then stabilized. The newest data from the Census Bureau suggests that it’s beginning to turn up a bit. Among low-income American families there has been a clear turn around. The proportion of low-income children living in married couple, two-parent homes is now rising in the United States. Among African American children in the United States, the proportion of them living in married couple, two-parent homes has increased 4 percent since 1995.

It’s still a low, very low number. But for the first time in 30 years the number is going in a positive direction. And so it may be possible to look back and say that the era of 1965 to 1995 in the United States was the era of family disintegration and the numbers suggest that we are entering an era of family reintegration.

The third question is why this turnaround is happening. Some people have said it’s because we had a terrific economic boom in the United States. It’s not the reason. We’ve had economic booms many times in the last three decades, and every single time, the period of economic expansion has coincided with a continued deterioration of the family structure and family cohesion. So, it’s unreasonable to believe that the booming economy is responsible for this stabilization and the beginning of a turnaround.

We have in the United States changed some of our laws in recent years at the state level. We’ve begun to reform a few marriage laws. Probably most important, we changed our welfare laws in the mid-1990s to remove some of financial incentives for family fragmentation that had been in our welfare laws. And most scholars believe that this did have a positive effect. One effect is that more children now living in two-parent homes.

But there is something more important, I believe. You may ask why we didn't change the laws before. Why did we have these laws for all these decades? And why did we decide to change them in 1995 and 1996?” We changed them because underlying all of this is a change in our attitudes and values. A kind of cultural change occurred in the United States that recognized the importance of this problem and the importance of doing something about it. It then led to some laws being changed and some proposals for legal change, and now is leading I believe to some demographic changes that are very positive.

What are the implications of this reversal of the deterioration of the family and possible turnaround in the United States? First, there is nothing inevitable about accelerating the trend toward a post-nuclear family. One of the biggest obstacles we have in our work is so many people saying, “Oh, nothing can be done. This is inevitable. Why, this is a part of modernity itself. We’ve become rich. We’ve become free. We have the ability to do what we want to do. And the family falls apart. And this is just a part of modern life. And there’s nothing that can be done about it.” That is not true. To the people who hold to that position, who say, “Oh, don’t be worried about this because the trend is inevitable,” I say that the trend is not inevitable. We’re free people. We can learn. We can change. And we are changing.

This recent news from the United States is not the most wonderful news because it’s not a dramatic, revolutionary change. But, 30 years of bad news has now stopped. And we’re beginning to have some good news. The phenomenon which scholars have labeled a worldwide family trend toward the post-nuclear family is not inevitable. And the terrible suffering we and our children have experienced because of this weakening of the family is not inevitable.