- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2001

The 1990s were a time of great change for the American family, right?

Not really, says a new analysis, which finds that family trends underwent "a quieting" during the 1990s, compared with the truly tumultuous changes seen in the 1960s and 1970s.

The last half of the 20th century saw upheavals in the economy, civil rights, women's rights, sexual behavior and improvements in health and longevity, former Census Bureau demographers Suzanne M. Bianchi and Lynne M. Casper said in a recent report for the Population Reference Bureau (PRB), a nonprofit, nonadvocacy organization in the District of Columbia.

"Marriage and family life felt the reverberations of these societal changes," they said, citing soaring rates of divorce, single parenthood, working women and cohabiting couples.

However, during the 1990s, there was "a quieting of changes in the family, or at least of the pace of change," they wrote in the PRB's Population Bulletin, releasedlast month.

For instance, among all American households in 1960, the portion of married couples with children was 44.2 percent. By 1990, this fell to 26.3 percent of American households.

However, during the 1990s, "there was little change" in the number of married-couple families, Ms. Bianchi and Ms. Casper wrote, noting that by 1998, 24.6 percent of households were traditional families.

Similar changes happened in reverse among single adults.

In 1960, relatively few men and women lived alone 4.3 percent and 8.7 percent of households, respectively.

During the next 30 years, these groups virtually doubled in size by 1990, 9.7 percent of U.S. households were composed of single men and 14.9 percent were of single women.

But during the 1990s, these numbers, too, remained fairly stable the number of single-male households rose a bit to 10.7 percent in 1998, while the number of single-female households stayed the same.

One reason family trends steadied during the 1990s was that the influential 70 million members of the baby-boom generation began aging into their 40s and 50s, said Ms. Casper, a health scientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

"The major portion of the population is starting to grow up. They're past the time where they're going to have kids out of wedlock or divorce," she said.

There's also been a good economy, "and when the economy is good, I think it's easier for families to stay together and things to be stabilized," said Ms. Bianchi, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland.

Sociologists, however, disagree about what will happen to the American family in the 21st century.

Ms. Bianchi and Ms. Casper, who are writing a book about family trends, see a continued but gradual decline in the number of traditional families.

This is partly because young Americans are postponing their marriages by about five years, marrying closer to age 27 than age 22, like their parents. This delay will depress marriage rates.

Also, the numbers of cohabitants and single parents are expected to creep up. So is the number of married couples without children, which is currently the largest category of American households.

Census Bureau data show no evidence that traditional families will rebound, Ms. Casper said. "Of course, projections are based on past trends, and something could happen where they could change if you had a big movement toward religion in this country or something like that," she said.

However, regardless of what happens, American families "have been amazingly adaptive and resilient in the past; one would expect them to be so in the future," Ms. Casper and Ms. Bianchi wrote.

This is not what sociology professor Steve Nock sees when he looks at family-trend data.

"I think marriage is reasserting itself," he said.

But marriages in the 21st century won't look like the ones in the 1950s, when the husband earned a paycheck and the wife stayed home they'll look more like the 1900s, when couples were "held together by things other than pure affection," he said.

Modern marriages will be stabilized because of economics, explained Mr. Nock, who teaches at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Already, 78 percent of married women have either full-time or part-time jobs, and about one in five couples have comparable earnings, he said.

This trend toward husbands and wives earning about the same amount of money is important and will produce marriages in which spouses "are equally dependent on each other's earnings," said Mr. Nock, adding: "I call these 'marriages of equally dependent spouses,' or MEDS."

This mutual economic dependence will do for modern marriages what running a small business or farm did for couples a century ago create lifelong, emotional and economic bonds, he said.

These bonds should help couples weather the inevitable emotional ups and downs in marriage, since they will have more incentives to work things out, he said.

Allen Carlson, president of Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill., is also tracking family-trend data.

He believes that, unless pro-family action is taken, the trends point to a further dissipation of the traditional American family.

Mr. Carlson, a historian and author, agrees that the trends appear to have plateaued in the 1990s, but says that, "if you peer even just a little bit under the surface of the statistics, things are getting worse."

For instance, marital fertility has been falling for decades, from 157 births per 1,000 married women in 1960, to 84 births in 1994. This means "that the number of births of children in responsibly constructed, married-couple homes is continuing to decline," he said.

Meanwhile, there's been steady growth in the number of unstable households where there is neither marriage nor children as depicted by such TV shows as "Friends" or "Seinfeld" or where couples cohabit, said Mr. Carlson.

These are the types of households that populate Sweden, which is "a post-family society," where marriage has become "a meaningless institution" and fathers, mothers and children are "equally dependent on central government" instead of each other, he said.

The United States is more religious than Sweden and other European nations, and this has helped stall wholesale family changes, he said. However, the country needs to find ways to heal "the great breach" between work and home that modern families face.

Possible solutions include ending the marriage penalty in the tax code, doubling the child tax credit to $1,000, creating a $2,500 tax credit for each preschooler instead the child-care tax credit, and liberalizing labor laws so parents can work more easily at home.

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