Family Groups by Type and Selected Characteristics

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Family Groups by Type and Selected Characteristics


By: Jason Fields

Date: November 2004

Source: Fields, Jason. U.S. Census Bureau. "America's Families and Living Arrangements: Family Groups by Type and Selected Characteristics." 〈http://www.〉 (accessed July 23, 2006).

About the Author: Jason Fields is a family demographer and a member of the Fertility and Family Statistics Branch in the Population Division of the United States Census Bureau. The U.S. Census Bureau was established to conduct the ten-year census needed to reallocate members of Congress among the states. As of 2006, the agency employs 12,000 and conducts approximately one hundred annual surveys in addition to the Census itself.


The first official United States Census was conducted in 1790. Overseen by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, it provided little more than a gross count of the U.S. population. Census data was collected primarily by federal marshals traveling on horseback throughout the nation.

With the basic census methodology and tools in place, additional data was relatively simple to gather, and in 1810 the government added census questions relating to manufacturing capacity and quality. Additional information was collected in subsequent years, and by 1850 the census included questions dealing with social issues including poverty, crime, and participation in religion. As both the U.S. population and the number of questions on the survey climbed, the total volume of data skyrocketed. In 1902, recognizing the need for a permanent federal agency to oversee the rapidly growing project, Congress made the Census Bureau a permanent part of government.

The Census Bureau collects data continuously, averaging more than one hundred surveys each year. The result of this ongoing effort is a detailed statistical snapshot of life in America. By collecting data on an ongoing basis, the census also allows policy makers to recognize and quantify changes in American life over time. Much of the data currently collected relates to family life and the changing face of families in the United States. In 2004, the Census Bureau published a comprehensive report on the makeup of families in America. This report, covering changes in family composition from 1970 to 2003, offered an in-depth look at what constitutes a family today in the United States.



See primary source image.


The 2004 family report reveals several long-term trends in the makeup of American families. Notably, the report reveals that families, which the Census Bureau defines as at least two related individuals living remaining households consisted of individuals living together, are less prevalent today than in the past. In alone, who accounted for more than twenty-five per-1970, eighty-one percent of all households consisted cent of the households in America, and those who did of families; by 1996 that figure had fallen to sixty-eight not fit any of the larger categories, labeled "other non-percent, where it remained through 2003. The family households."

Family groups by type and selected characteristics: 2003
CharacteristicTotalMarried couple family groupsOther family groups
TotalMale reference personFemale reference person
X not applicable.
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, Annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2003.
All family groups79,21058,58620,6245,00115,623
Family type
  Family household75,59657,32018,2854,66513,620
  Related subfamily3,0891,2321,8562601,596
  Unrelated subfamily5253449184407
Size of family group
  2 people36,08425,25410,8302,8857,945
  3 people17,45411,8315,6231,2694,354
  4 people15,45712,8872,5715312,040
  5 people6,7035,721982174808
  6 or more3,5122,894618141477
Number of own children under 18
  No own children40,36332,1418,2222,7415.481
  1 child17,10310,1526,9511,4225,529
  2 children14,23210,6873,5446092,935
  3 children5,4904,0961,3931701,223
  4 or more children2,0221,50951358456
Presence of own children under 18
  No own children40,36332,1418,2222,7415,481
  With own children38,84726,44512,4022,26010,142
  With own children under 1228,55719,5938,9641,5477,417
  With own children under 617,12712,0145,1128784,234
  With own children under 310,0237,2062,8175302,287
  With own children under 13,2552,318937203734
Family income in 2002
  Under $10,0005,1761,5843,5934263,167
  $100,000 and over13,56712,720847349498
  Occupies without payment94265728562223

As of 2006, fewer American households include minor children. In 1970, approximately forty percent of households consisted of married couples with children; by 2003 that segment accounted for just twenty-three percent of the households in America. Families also have fewer children, on average, than their parents and grandparents did. The most common family size in America today is two individuals, and for families with minor children, the most common number is one. Very large families, those with four or more children, account for less than three percent of American families today.

Single parents also lead an increasing proportion of American families. The number of single-mother-led families jumped from three million to ten million during the years of the study, while the number of single-father headed families quadrupled to two million. These changes were driven largely be demo-graphic and sociological shifts in American culture. More single women gave birth during the 1990s than during the 1970s, and the trend toward delaying marriage also created the opportunity for more women to become single mothers. Rising divorce rates during the years of the study expanded the number of single parents heading homes.

These changes in family makeup have important implications for the children living in these homes. Single-parent homes are far more likely to subsist below the poverty line; almost one-third of families headed by single mothers fall into that category, raising significant concerns about the welfare of children in these homes. The route to single parenthood is also an important predictor of financial security. Divorced parents are generally older and better educated, and earn higher incomes than their never-married counterparts.

The study also examined the phenomenon of stay-at-home parents. While the nuclear family of the 1950s, in which the father holds outside employment while the mother stays home, is largely forgotten, a surprising number of parents still stay at home. Of parents remaining unemployed for all of 2003, more than eighty-eight percent of mothers and more than fifteen percent of fathers gave "care for home and family" as their reason.

The 2004 family report illuminates the increasing diversity of American households. While the traditional two-parent home remains common, it is no longer the norm. Later marriages, fewer children, and fading resistance to divorce and single parenthood have combined to produce an increasingly diverse landscape of households in America. As American family forms continue to proliferate, detailed data will become increasingly important to fully understanding the workings of American family life.



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Lofas, Jennifer. Family Rules: Helping Stepfamilies and Single Parents Build Happy Homes. New York: Kensington Publishing, 1998.

Parenting and Child Development in "Nontraditional" families, edited by Michael Lamb. New York: LEA, 1998.


Heaton, Tim B., et al. "Cross-national Variation in Family Influences on Child Health." Social Science and Medicine 60 (2005): 97-108.

Schwartz, Seth J. and Gordon Finley. "Father Involvement, Nurturant Fathering, and Young Adult Psychosocial Functioning: Differences Among Adoptive, Adoptive Stepfather, and Nonadoptive Stepfamilies." Journal of Family Issues 27 (2006): 712-731.

Stein, Martin T., et al. "A Difficult Adjustment to School: The Importance of Family Constellation." Pediatrics 114 (2004): 1464-1467.

Web sites

Alabama Cooperative Extension System. "Defining Nontraditional Families." October 7, 2002. 〈〉 (accessed July 22, 2006).

Public Broadcasting System: Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. "Poll: Americans Idealize Traditional Family, Even as Nontraditional Families Are More Accepted." October 19, 2005. 〈〉 (accessed July 22, 2006).

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Family Groups by Type and Selected Characteristics

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