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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Fewer Children Live In Two-Parent Households

The percentage of children in the U.S. living with two parents continues to decline, according to a June 29 report from the U.S. Census Bureau. The good news, if I can label it such, is that the rate of this decline appears to have slowed down significantly.

But while fewer children today live with both their parents, more and more children live with a grandparent – either in their own home or the grandparent’s home. Grandparents in the 21st century often fulfill key roles in children’s care.

The bureau’s report, titled “Living Arrangements of Children: 2009,” accents household developments over a period of nearly two decades ending in 2009. Children’s development and their economic well-being are influenced greatly by their living arrangements, the report’s authors comment.

Rose Kreider, a Census Bureau demographer, commented that “slow or fast, the family situation in which children live continues to change.” She said that the historical data in a report such as this one “allows us to venture outside of our current vantage point and view the accumulation of change over time. It gives us the context to better understand who we are by showing us where we came from.”

A pattern of very rapid change in the percentage of children living with both parents witnessed between the years 1970 and 1990 was not repeated in the period that followed, according to the report. It notes that between 1970 and 1990, “the proportion of children living with their mother without their father present doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent.”

A factor at that time was a sharp increase of “births to unmarried women, from 11 percent of all births in 1970 to 28 percent in 1990,” the report says. When discussing children’s living arrangements, however, the report typically calls attention to a complexity of factors that explain the shape of a household — like divorce, separation or the death of one parent.

In any event, since 1990 the situation has changed. “The changes in children’s living arrangements have continued, but at much slower rates,” the report says. Between the years 1990 and 2009, the percentage of children living with two parents declined much less than between 1970 and 1990.

Seventy-three percent of children overall lived in two-parent households in 1991, while 69 percent did so in 2009 – a decline of four percentage points compared with the 13 percent decline between 1970 and 1990, the report says. (I should note that the report provides greater detail on these points by analyzing them according to racial groupings.)

The unmarried cohabitation of one or both of a child’s parents is a living arrangement in which a great many of America’s children find themselves today, the report shows. It says:

“Many unmarried parents are cohabiting – either with the other biological parent of the child or with another partner. About one in five children is born to unmarried, cohabiting parents, and two in five are expected to live in a cohabiting family by the time they are aged 12.”

In releasing its report, the Census Bureau highlighted the roles of grandparents in children’s living arrangements. In 2009, 7.8 million children lived with at least one grandparent, a 64 percent increase since 1991. Often enough, but not always, this meant living in the grandparent’s home. Often enough, too, one or both of a child’s parents also lived there.

As I read the report, I gained the impression that living with a grandparent today often has an economic motivation. I know, of course, that grandparents are present in many homes in order to receive needed care and love from their adult children. But there is more.

It seemed clear that in many households, grandparents play a role in alleviating a family’s financial difficulties or poverty, even if that just means that a grandparent provides a place for an adult child’s family to live.

Some reporters focused on what the report revealed about grandparents, parents and children living together under one roof at this particular point in time. The recession of recent years has prompted growing numbers of family members to move in together out of necessity, some suggested.

In a June 29 report, USA Today quoted Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a group devoted to intergenerational programs and policies. Butts said that a trend toward shared living quarters has been accelerated by the recession.

Butts commented, “If there’s anything good that’s come out of this economic time, it’s that we realize we need each other.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.