Family structure in the United States

The traditional family structure in the United States is considered a family support system involving two married individuals providing care and stability for their biological offspring. However, this two-parent, nuclear family has become less prevalent, and alternative family forms have become more common.[1] The family is created at birth and establishes ties across generations.[2] Those generations, the extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, can hold significant emotional and economic roles for the nuclear family.

Over time, the transtructure has had to adapt to very influential changes, including divorce and the introduction of single-parent families, teenage pregnancy and unwed mothers, and same-sex marriage, and increased interest in adoption. Social movements such as the feminist movement and the stay-at-home father have contributed to the creation of alternative family forms, generating new versions of the American family.

Family jump
An American family composed of the mother, father, children, and extended family.

At a glance

Families US
Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships, 1970–2000

Nuclear family

The nuclear family has been considered the "traditional" family since the communist scare in the cold war of the 1950s. The nuclear family consists of a mother, father, and the children. The two-parent nuclear family has become less prevalent, and pre-American and European family forms have become more common.[1] Beginning in the 1970s in the United States, the structure of the "traditional" nuclear American family began to change. It was the women in the households that began to make this change. They decided to begin careers outside of the home and not live according to the male figures in their lives[3]

These include same-sex relationships, single-parent households, adopting individuals, and extended family systems living together. The nuclear family is also choosing to have fewer children than in the past.[4] The percentage of married-couple households with children under 18 has declined to 23.5% of all households in 2000 from 25.6% in 1990, and from 45% in 1960. 2015

Single parent

A single parent (also termed lone parent or sole parent) is a parent who cares for one or more children without the assistance of the other biological parent. Historically, single-parent families often resulted from death of a spouse, for instance in childbirth. This term is can be broken down into two types: sole parent and co-parent. A sole parent is managing all of the responsibilities of child rearing on their own without financial or emotional assistance. A sole parent can be a product of abandonment or death of the other parent, or can be a single adoption or artificial insemination. A co-parent is someone who still gets some type of assistance with the child/children. Single-parent homes are increasing as married couples divorce, or as unmarried couples have children. Although widely believed to be detrimental to the mental and physical well being of a child, this type of household is tolerated.[5]

This figure illustrates the changing structure of families in the U.S. Only 7% of families in the U.S. in 2002 were "traditional" families in the sense that the husband worked and earned a sufficient income for the wife and kids to stay home. Many families are now dual-earner families. The "other" group includes the many households that are headed by a single parent.

The percentage of single-parent households has doubled in the last three decades, but that percentage tripled between 1900 and 1950.[6] The sense of marriage as a "permanent" institution has been weakened, allowing individuals to consider leaving marriages more readily than they may have in the past.[7] Increasingly, single parent families are due to out of wedlock births, especially those due to unintended pregnancy.


Stepfamilies are becoming more familiar in America. Divorce rates are rising and the remarriage rate is rising as well, therefore, bringing two families together making step families. Statistics show that there are 1,300 new stepfamilies forming every day. Over half of American families are remarried, that is 75% of marriages ending in divorce, remarry.[8]

Extended family

The extended family consists of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In some circumstances, the extended family comes to live either with or in place of a member of the nuclear family. An example includes elderly parents who move in with their children due to old age. This places large demands on the caregivers, particularly the female relatives who choose to perform these duties for their extended family.[9]

Historically, among certain Asian and Native American cultures the family structure consisted of a grandmother and her children, especially daughters, who raised their own children together and shared child care responsibilities. Uncles, brothers, and other male relatives sometimes helped out. Romantic relationships between men and women were formed and dissolved with little impact on the children who remained in the mother's extended family.

Roles and relationships

Married partners

A married couple was defined as a "husband and wife enumerated as members of the same household" by the U.S. Census Bureau,[10] but they will be categorizing same-sex couples as married couples if they are married. Same-sex couples who were married were previously recognized by the Census Bureau as unmarried partners.[11] Same-sex marriage is legally permitted across the country since June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Polygamy is illegal throughout the U.S.[12]

Although Cousin marriages are illegal in most states, they are legal in many states, the District of Columbia and some territories. Some states have some restrictions or exceptions for cousin marriages and/or recognize such marriages performed out-of-state. Since the 1940s, the United States marriage rate has decreased, whereas rates of divorce have increased.[13]

Unwed partners

Living as unwed partners is also known as cohabitation. The number of heterosexual unmarried couples in the United States has increased tenfold, from about 400,000 in 1960 to more than five million in 2005.[14] This number would increase by at least another 594,000 if same-sex partners were included.[14] Of all unmarried couples, about 1 in 9 (11.1% of all unmarried-partner households) are homosexual.[14]

The cohabitation lifestyle is becoming more popular in today's generation.[15] It is more convenient for couples not to get married because it can be cheaper and simpler. As divorce rates rise in society, the desire to get married is less attractive for couples uncertain of their long-term plans.[14]


Parents can be either the biological mother or biological father, or the legal guardian for adopted children. Traditionally, mothers were responsible for raising the kids while the father was out providing financially for the family. The age group for parents ranges from teenage parents to grandparents who have decided to raise their grandchildren, with teenage pregnancies fluctuating based on race and culture.[16] Older parents are financially established and generally have fewer problems raising children compared to their teenage counterparts.[17]


A housewife or "homemaker" is a married woman who is not employed outside the home to earn income, but stays at home and takes care of the home and children. This includes doing common chores such as: cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. The roles of women working within the house has changed drastically as more women start to pursue careers. The amount of time women spend doing housework declined from 27 hours per week in 1965, to less than 16 hours in 1995, but it is still substantially more housework than their male partners.[18]


A breadwinner is the main financial provider in the family. Historically the husband has been the breadwinner; that trend is changing as wives start to take advantage of the women's movement to gain financial independence for themselves. According to The New York Times, "In 2001, wives earned more than their spouses in almost a third of married households where the wife worked."[19] Yet, even within nuclear families in which both spouses are employed outside the home, many men are still responsible for a substantially smaller share of household duties.[20]

Stay-at-home dads

Stay-at-home dads or "househusbands" are fathers that do not participate in the workforce and stay at home to raise their children—the male equivalent to housewives. Stay-at-home dads are not as popular in American society.[21] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, "There are an estimated 105,000 'stay-at-home' dads. These are married fathers with children under fifteen years of age who are not in the workforce primarily so they can care for family members, while their wives work for a living outside the home. Stay-at-home dads care for 189,000 children."[22]


Only child families

An only child (single child) is one without any biological or adopted brothers or sisters. Only children often perform better in school and in their careers than children with siblings.[18]

Childfree and childlessness

Childfree couples choose to not have children. These include: young couples, who plan to have children later, as well as those who do not plan to have any children. Involuntary childlessness may be caused by infertility, medical problems, death of a child, or other factors.

Adopted children

Adopted children are children that were given up at birth, abandoned or were unable to be cared for by their biological parents. They may have been put into foster care before finding their permanent residence. It is particularly hard for adopted children to get adopted from foster care: 50,000 children were adopted in 2001.[23] The average age of these children was 7, which shows that fewer older children were adopted.[23]

Modern family models

Same-sex marriage, adoption, and child rearing

Same-sex parents are gay, lesbian or bisexual couples that choose to raise children. Nationally, 66% of female same-sex couples and 44% of male same-sex couples live with children under eighteen years old.[21] In the 2000 United States Census, there were 594,000 households that claimed to be headed by same-sex couples, with 72% of those having children.[24] In July 2004, the American Psychological Association concluded that "Overall results of research suggests that the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay and bisexual parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents."[25]

Single-parent households

Single-parent homes in America are increasingly common. With more children being born to unmarried couples and to couples whose marriages subsequently dissolve, more children live with just one parent. The proportion of children living with a never-married parent has grown, from 4% in 1960 to 42% in 2001.[26] Of all single-parent families, 83% are mother–child families.[26]

Adoption requirements

The adoption requirements and policies for adopting children have made it harder for foster families and potential adoptive families to adopt. Before a family can adopt, they must go through state, county, and agency criteria. Adoption agencies' criteria express the importance of age of the adoptive parents, as well as the agency's desire for married couples over single adopters.[27] Adoptive parents also have to deal with criteria that are given by the birth parents of the adoptive child. The different criteria for adopting children makes it harder for couples to adopt children in need,[27] but the strict requirements can help protect the foster children from unqualified couples.[27]

Currently 1,500,000 (2% of all U.S children) are adopted. There are different types of adoption; embryo adoption when a couple is having trouble conceiving a child and instead choose to have their sperm and egg conjoined outside the womb, international adoption where couples adopt children that come from foreign countries, and private adoption which is the most common form of adoption. In private adoption, families can adopt children via licensed agencies or with by directly contacting the child's biological parents.

Male/female role pressures

The traditional "father" and "mother" roles of the nuclear family have become blurred over time. Because of the women's movement's push for women to engage in traditionally masculine pursuits in society, as women choose to sacrifice their child-bearing years to establish their careers, and as fathers feel increasing pressure to be involved with tending to children, the traditional roles of fathers as the "breadwinners" and mothers as the "caretakers" have come into question.[28]

African-American family structure

The family structure of African-Americans has long been a matter of national public policy interest.[29] The 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, known as The Moynihan Report, examined the link between black poverty and family structure.[29] It hypothesized that the destruction of the Black nuclear family structure would hinder further progress toward economic and political equality.[29]

When Moynihan wrote in 1965 on the coming destruction of the Black family, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was 25% amongst Blacks.[30] In 1991, 68% of Black children were born outside of marriage.[31] In 2011, 72% of Black babies were born to unwed mothers.[32][33]

Television portrayals

The television industry initially helped create a stereotype of the American nuclear family. During the era of the baby boomers, families became a popular social topic, especially on television.[34] Family shows such as Roseanne, All in the Family, Leave It to Beaver, The Cosby Show, Married... with Children, The Jeffersons, and Good Times, Everybody Loves Raymond have portrayed different social classes of families growing up in America. Those "perfect" nuclear families have changed as the years passed and have become more inclusive, showing single-parent and divorced families, as well as older singles.[5] Television shows that show single-parent families include Half & Half, One on One, Murphy Brown, and Gilmore Girls.

While it did not become a common occurrence the iconic image of the American family was started in the early-1930s. It was not until WWII that families generally had the economic income in which to successfully propagate this lifestyle.[35]

See also


Further reading


  1. ^ a b Edwards, H.N. (1987). Changing family structure and youthful well-being. Journal of Family Issues 8, 355–372
  2. ^ Beutler, Burr, Bahr, and Herrin (1989) p. 806; cited by Fine, Mark A. in Families in the United States: Their Current Status and Future Prospects Copyright 1992
  3. ^ Stewart Foley, Michael (2013). Front Porch Politics The Forgotten Heyday of American Activism in the 1970s and 1980s. Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780809047970.
  4. ^ "For First Time since the cold war, Nuclear Families Drop Below 25% of Households". May 15, 2001. Archived from the original on February 26, 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-27.
  5. ^ a b Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 7. 6th edition, 2007
  6. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 18. 6th edition, 2007
  7. ^ Glenn, N.D. (1987). Continuity versus change, sanguineness versus concern: Views of the American family in the late 1980s. Journal of Family Issues 8, 348–354
  8. ^ Stewart, S.D. (2007). Brave New Stepfamilies. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  9. ^ Brubaker, T.H. (1990). Continuity and change in later life families: Grandparenthood, couple relationships and family caregiving. Gerentology Review 3, 24–40
  10. ^ Teachman, Tedrow, Crowder. The Changing Demography of America's Families Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 62 (Nov 2000) p. 1234
  11. ^ "Census to change the way it counts gay married couples". Washington Post.
  12. ^ Barbara Bradley Hagerty (May 27, 2008). "Some Muslims in U.S. Quietly Engage in Polygamy". National Public Radio: All Things Considered. Retrieved July 23, 2009.
  13. ^ Teachman, Tedrow, Crowder. The Changing Demography of America's Families. Journal of Marriage and the Family, Vol. 62 (Nov 2000) p. 1235
  14. ^ a b c d Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 271. 6th edition, 2007
  15. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 275. 6th edition, 2007
  16. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 326. 6th edition, 2007
  17. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, pp. 328–329. 6th edition, 2007
  18. ^ a b Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 367. 6th edition, 2007
  19. ^ Gardner, Ralph (November 10, 2003). "Alpha Women, Beta Men – When wives are the family breadwinners". Retrieved July 27, 2009.
  20. ^ Furstenberg, Jr., F.F. (1988). Good dads-bad dads: Two faces of fatherhood. In A.J. Cherlin, The changing American family and public policy (pp. 193–218). Washington, DC: The Urban Institute Press
  21. ^ a b Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 328. 6th edition, 2007
  22. ^ "US Census Press Releases". Archived from the original on November 18, 2003. Retrieved July 27, 2009.
  23. ^ a b "Child's Finalization Age (Grouped)". Retrieved July 28, 2009.
  24. ^ U.S. Census Bureau, Married-Couple and Unmarried-Partner Households: 2000 (February 2003)
  25. ^ Meezan, William and Rauch, Jonathan. Gay Marriage, Same-sex Parenting, and America's Children. The Future of Children Vol. 15 No. 2 Marriage and Child Wellbeing (Autumn 2005) p. 102
  26. ^ a b Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 20–21. 6th edition, 2007
  27. ^ a b c "Review of Qualification Requirements for Prospective Adoptive Parents – Agencies, Agency, Alcohol, A". Retrieved July 28, 2009.
  28. ^ Fine, Mark A. Families in the United States: Their Current Status and Future Prospects. Family Relations vol. 41 (Oct 1992) p. 431
  29. ^ a b c "U.S. Department of Labor -- History -- The Negro Family - The Case for National Action".
  30. ^ Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Washington, D.C., Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, 1965.
  31. ^ National Review, April 4, 1994, p. 24.
  32. ^ "Blacks struggle with 72 percent unwed mothers rate", Jesse Washington, NBC News, July 11, 2010
  33. ^ "For Blacks, the Pyrrhic Victory of the Obama Era", Jason L. Riley, The Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2012
  34. ^ Benokraitis, N: Marriages & families, page 7–8. 6th edition, 2007
  35. ^ Etuk, Lena. "How Family Structure has Changed". Oregon State University. Retrieved April 16, 2012.

External links

African-American family structure

The family structure of African-Americans has long been a matter of national public policy interest. A 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, known as The Moynihan Report, examined the link between black poverty and family structure. It hypothesized that the destruction of the Black nuclear family structure would hinder further progress toward economic and political equality.When Moynihan wrote in 1965 on the coming destruction of the Black family, the out-of-wedlock birth rate was 25% among Blacks. In 1991, 0.1% of Black children were born outside of marriage. In 2011, 2% of Black babies were born to unmarried mothers. In 2015, 77% of Black babies were born to unmarried mothers.Among all newlyweds, 18.0% of Black Americans in 2015 married non-Black spouses. 24% of all Black male newlyweds in 2015 married outside their race, compared with 12% of Black female newlyweds.

Divorce in the United States

Like marriage, divorce in the United States is under the jurisdiction of state governments, not the federal government. Divorce or "dissolution of marriage" is a legal process in which a judge or other authority dissolves the bonds of matrimony existing between two persons, thus restoring them to the status of being single and permitting them to marry other individuals. The legal process for divorce may also involve issues of spousal support, child custody, child support, distribution of property and division of debt, though these matters are usually only ancillary or consequential to the dissolution of the marriage.

Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWS) is a longitudinal birth cohort study of American children in urban areas, run by Princeton University and Columbia University with the University of Michigan. It uses a stratified random sample technique and an oversample of non-marital births. Baseline data collection ran from 1998–2000, with interviews with both biological parents shortly after the child’s birth. Follow-up interviews were conducted when the child was one, three, five, and nine years old. Fifteen year interviews began in February 2014.In addition to parent interviews, the years three, five, and nine included in-home assessments, child care or teacher assessments, and interviews with the child. Core aims of the study are to learn about capabilities and relationships of unmarried parents, and how families and children fare on various health and social measures over time.

Hortense Spillers

Hortense Spillers (born 1942) is an American literary critic, Black Feminist scholar and the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor at Vanderbilt University. A scholar of the African diaspora, Spillers is known for her essays on African-American literature, collected in Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003, and Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, a collection edited by Spillers published by Routledge in 1991.

Parental portrayals in the media

The portrayal of parents in media sometimes depicts gender stereotypes in society, often highlighting the "traditional American family" as opposed to nonconventional configurations. Social Scientists have found that home, family, and romance are three of the most important components of the way characters are presented. Moreover, these qualities are often presented in a stereotypical and traditional fashion. In the 1950s the meaning of the word parent coincided with the nuclear family structure—husband, wife, and children. Parents had a responsibility to uphold traditional gender roles in society. Gender roles in society were as follows: fathers work outside of the home and bring in the bread (take on the role of providers), while mothers tend to housework, make sure they are emotionally available, and look after the children (take on the role of caretakers). In today's time, the definition and responsibility of a parent has become more flexible/adjustable since the 1950s, although some parents tend to stick to their traditional gender roles. For example, two-married-parent families were the most common type of family unit a generation ago; however, in the year 2000 that particular family structure could only be found in one out of four households. Because of the shift in parenting, media outlets took it upon themselves to provide representation for certain family structures outside of the nuclear family, leaving them flexible as well. Mass media has presented a multitude of family structures and has promoted the acceptance of alternate family structures in many ways including television, newspapers, movies, commercials, books, comics, and etc. Media is linked to the structure of families, given that parents and their children confide in it when questioning their own family and parenting practices. Its influence impacts parents positively and negatively, either by underrepresentation (dumb, irresponsible) or drawing the perfect picture (good moms and dads).

Second-generation immigrants in the United States

Second-generation immigrants in the United States are individuals born and raised in the United States who have at least one foreign born parent. Although there is some ambiguity in reference to the definition of second-generation Americans, this definition is cited by major research centers such as the United States Census Bureau and the Pew Research Center.As the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees citizenship to any individual born in the U.S. who is also subject to the jurisdiction of the U.S., second-generation Americans are currently granted U.S. citizenship by birth. However, political debate over repealing this right has increased in recent years. Advocates of this motion claim that this right attracts unauthorized immigration to the U.S. The repeal of birthright citizenship would have the greatest impact on second-generation Americans who are Mexican Americans, as Mexico is the country of origin for the majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S.The growing presence of first-generation immigrants in the U.S. has led to a growth in the percentage of the population that can be categorized as second-generation Americans. This is due to immigrants being more likely than native born adults to have children. In 2009, immigrants, both legal and unauthorized, were the parents of 23% of all children in the U.S. The process by which second-generation immigrants undergo assimilation into U.S. society affects their economic successes and educational attainments, with the general trend being an improvement in earnings and education relative to the parental generation. Second-generation Americans have an increasingly important impact on the national labor force and ethnic makeup.

Work–family balance in the United States

Work–family balance in the United States refers to the specific issues that arise when men and women in the United States attempt to balance their occupational lives with their family lives. This differs from work-life balance: while work-life balance may refer to the health and living issues that arise from work, work–family balance refers specifically to how work and families intersect and influence each other. Work–family balance in the U.S. differs significantly for families of different social class.

Middle-class family issues center on dual-earner spouses and parents while lower class issues center on problems that arise due to single parenting. Work–family balance issues also differ by class, since middle class occupations provide more benefits and family support while low-wage jobs are less flexible with benefits. Solutions for helping individuals manage work–family balance in the U.S. include legislation, workplace policies, and the marketization of care work.

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