Family Structure

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Family Structure





Among the most significant social changes that have occurred in recent decades are profound transformations in the structure of the American family. Prior to the last third of the twentieth century, most Americans lived in a family consisting of a husband and wife and their biological children. Both divorce and nonmarital childbearing were relatively rare (Popenoe 1996). Consequently, during the 1950s, over 80 percent of American children under

Table 1
Family structure changes 19702003
SOURCE: Fields 2004
Household by Type (Percent)100.00100.00100.00100.00100.00100.00
Family Households (TOTAL)81.273.770.970.068.867.9
Married Couple (TOTAL)70.660.856.154.452.851.5
Married Couple with Children40.330.926.325.524.123.3
Married Couple without Children30.329.929.828.928.728.2
Other Family Households (TOTAL)10.612.914.815.616.016.4
Nonfamily Households (TOTAL)18.826.229.229.931.232.0
Women Living Alone11.514.014.914.714.815.2
Men Living Alone5.68.69.710.210.711.2
Other Nonfamily Households1.
Median Age at First Marriage      

age eighteen were living with both biological parents, who were married to one another (Bumpass and Sweet 1989), and a large majority of adult men and women were married (Saluter and Lugaila 1998). Beginning in the 1960s, the structure of American families changed rapidly and dramatically (Wu and Wolfe 2001). The more prominent of these changes include much higher divorce rates (Cherlin 1992), more nonmarital births (Wu et al. 2001), the postponement of first marriage (Fields 2004), and an increase in nonmarital cohabitation (Bianchi and Casper 2000; Bumpass and Lu 2000). Understanding the factors leading to this dramatic transformation and the consequences of these changes is among the most significant issues faced by American society. In this entry, we explore recent data and research on family-structure issues and changes. Primary emphasis will be on the American family, but some international comparisons are provided.


For purposes of this entry, we use the definitions of household and family utilized by the U.S. Census Bureau. A household contains one or more peopleeveryone living in a housing unit makes up a household. There are two types of households: family households and nonfamily households. A family household has at least two members related by birth, marriage, or adoption. A family household is maintained by a married couple or by a man or women living with other relatives. A nonfamily household can be either a person living alone or a householder sharing a housing unit with nonrelatives, such as borders or roommates.

The data in Table 1 shows some of the major family-structure changes that occurred from 1970 to 2003. Most apparent are significant declines in the proportion of family households, especially married-couple families, and a corresponding increase in other family households (generally single parent) and nonfamily households. In 1970, 81.2 percent of all households in the United States were family households, and 86.9 percent of the family households included a married couple. By 2003, only 67.9 percent of all households were family households, and 75.8 percent of the family households included a married couple.

Table 1 also shows a significant increase in the median age at first marriage. For men, this increase was from 23.2 in 1970 to 27.1 in 2003, while for women, the increase was from 20.8 in 1970 to 25.3 in 2003. Further indication of the postponement of first marriage is apparent in looking at different age cohorts (data not shown). Of the cohort of individuals born from 1940 to 1944, 70 percent of the men and 79 percent of the women had been married before their twenty-fifth birthday. In comparison, of the cohort of individuals born from 1965 to 1969, only 40.6 percent of the men and 54.8 percent of the women had been married before their twenty-fifth birthday (Kreider 2005).

Other critical family-structure changes not shown in Table 1 that have occurred since 1970 include a substantial increase in both the proportion of births that occur outside of marriage and the number of cohabitating couples. About one-third of all births in the United States now occur out of marriage (McLanahan et al. 2001), while there has been a sevenfold increase in the number of cohabitating couples (to 5.5 million) since 1970 (Casper and Cohen 2000). The majority of these unmarried-partner households had partners of the opposite sex (4.9 million), but about one in nine (594,000) had partners of the same sex. Of these same-sex unmarried-partner households, 301,000 had male partners and 293,000 had female partners (Simmons and OConnell 2003).

Tables 2 through 4 present information on current measures of family structure for the United States. Table 2 presents data on the marital history of American adults. The increased divorce rate is apparent by comparing those individuals who were in the fifty to fifty-nine age cohort with those who were seventy or more in 2001. About 40 percent of all persons aged fifty to fifty-nine had been divorced at least once, and about 30 percent had been married two or more times. In comparison, for persons seventy years old and older, only about 18 percent had been divorced and about 20 percent had been married two or more times.

Table 2
Marital history for people 15 years and over, by age and sex, 2001
CharacteristicTotal 15 and Over15-1920-2425-2930-3435-3940-4950-5960-6970 or more
SOURCE : Kreider 2005
Never married30.999.183.950.829.521.514.
Married once53.40.916.046.360.866.265.162.667.575.5
Married twice12.5-
Married 3 or more times3.2--
Ever divorced21.
Ever widowed3.6--
Never married24.696.372.437.321.715.610.
Married once58.73.626.557.367.366.865.165.272.977.8
Married twice13.
Married 3 or more times3.1--
Ever divorced23.10.22.611.918.628.135.438.928.417.7
Ever widowed11.6-
Table 3
Family and living arrangements and poverty status of Children from birth to 18, 20012002
CharacteristicTotal ChildrenaPercentUnder 66111218Percent in povertyb
aSOURCE: Kreider and Fields 2005 (Based on 2001 data)
bSOURCE: Fields 2003 (Based on 2002 data)
Two parent (TOTAL)51,11270.570.068.767.410.1
Both biologicalmarried44,36361.2
Both biologicalunmarried1,8452.527.4
Single parent (TOTAL)18,47225.526.927.527.6
Neither parent2,9174.
Table 4
Family structure by race/ethnicity and poverty status, 2003
  Race/Ethnicitya Percent in povertyb
CharacteristicsNonhispanic whiteBlack aloneHispanic (any race) 
aSOURCE: Fields 2004
bSOURCE: DeNavasWalt et al. 2004
Family households (TOTAL)66.366.380.210.0
Married couple54.330.954.65.4
Other family8.729.817.928.0
Female householder3.35.67.713.5
Male householder    
Nonfamily households (TOTAL)33.733.719.8
Female householder18.918.59.0
Male householder14.815.210.8

Table 3 presents data on the family and living arrangements of children. In 2001, 61.2 percent of children in the United States from birth to age eighteen were living with both biological parents, who were married to one another. Another 9 percent were living with cohabitating parents or in a blended family. About one-fourth of the children were living with a single parent (usually the mother), and 4 percent were not living with either of their parents.

Finally, Table 4 shows extensive differences in family structure by race and ethnicity. Most significantly, only 30.9 percent of black households in the United States consist of a married-couple family, a proportion much smaller than for either whites or Hispanics. Hispanics, in contrast, have a much higher proportion of family households and a much lower proportion of nonfamily households than whites or blacks.

Patterns of U.S. family-structure change show some similarities to changes occurring in other economically advanced societies, but there are important differences. For example, the percentage of births occurring out of marriage is greater in Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, and France than in the United States. However, these countries have lower child-poverty rates and fewer children living in single-parent households because most unwed mothers are in long-term cohabitating partnerships (Kiernan 2001). In less developed countries, family structures tend to be more traditional.


Discussions of the causes of these major family structure transformations can be grouped into two categories. The first category includes significant cultural transformations in the United States, where norms and values regarding marriage, divorce, sexuality, and so on have changed extensively. Opinion polls during the 1950s indicated that most Americans considered divorce, sex outside of marriage, and remaining single while in adulthood as somewhat deviant. These same behaviors are much more acceptable today, and the stigma associated with an adult not being in a traditional married-couple family has mostly disappeared (Giele 2003; Hackstaff 2003).

The second category of factors affecting the American family structure includes economic changes, such as the increased employment of women and economic-restructuring processes that result in fewer men with jobs that pay enough to support a family. Women have entered the job force in increasing numbers since the 1960s, making American women much more economically independent. The result is that divorce and remaining single have become more attractive alternatives, especially when compared to an unfavorable marriage (Giele 2003).

Additionally, beginning in the 1970s, an economic-restructuring process in the United States and other advanced societies has resulted in a significant decline in the number of manufacturing jobs and a corresponding increase in the number of jobs in the service sector (Morris and Western 1999; Sassen 1990). This economic-structure transformation has family-structure implications for two major reasons. First, a majority of the employees in the declining manufacturing sector are male, while female employees predominate in the expanding service sector. Consequently, there are increased employment opportunities for females and reduced employment opportunities for males. Second, most of the manufacturing jobs that have been lost were middle-income, while the new service jobs vary extensively in quality. While some service jobs are high quality, many others are low-pay, low-skill, temporary, and seasonal (Albrecht 2004). In the past, even minimally skilled workers could often get a middle-income job in the manufacturing sector. This is no longer the case as workers who lack the skills to attain high-quality jobs are often forced to take low-quality jobs because many of the middle-income jobs no longer exist. The result is higher rates of unemployment and underemployment among males and shrinkage in the pool of male household heads financially able to support a family. Marriage thus becomes less attractive to women, the rate of unwed childbearing increases, and female-headed households proliferate (Albrecht et al. 2000; Wilson 1987, 1996).


In some sectors of society, the emergence of socially acceptable alternatives to the traditional family was met with euphoria because it was felt that the family had been an institution that generally suppressed women and limited individuality (Albrecht and Albrecht 2004). However, social science research is finding that many problems are emerging from changes in the American family (Haveman et al. 2001; Manning 2002; Waite and Gallagher 2000). A brief overview of the research on this topic indicates that men, women, and children in single-adult families all experience extensive disadvantages relative to their counterparts in married-couple families (Popenoe 1996). Of the long list of disadvantages, only a few will be highlighted here. Single-adult families experience much higher levels of poverty, especially for females, with all of its attendant problems (Albrecht et al. 2000; Corcoran et al. 1992; McLanahan 1985). Children who grow up with only one biological parent have significantly lower educational achievements. These young people are much less likely to graduate from high school and to attend and complete college (Amato and Keith 1991; Downey 1995; McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Raley et al. 2005; Zill 1996). Girls from one-parent families are much more likely to become pregnant as teenagers than girls from married-couple families, while boys are much more likely to become delinquent (McLanahan and Sandefur 1994; Wells and Rankin 1991). These differences remain even when economic conditions are considered. The advantages of being part of a married-couple family are apparent for adults as well as children. In a variety of ways, both men and women are healthier, happier, and more economically prosperous when married (Lichter and Graefe 2001; Nock 1998; Haveman et al. 2001).

SEE ALSO Family; Family, Extended; Family, Nuclear; Female-Headed Families


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Don E. Albrecht

Carol Mulford Albrecht