You will hear a lot about the American family in the election campaign. For most of us, that calls up an image of a man and wife and two or three children. Forget it. Predominant as the social pattern for several hundred years, that American family has lost its place. Households of unmarried couples and households without children outnumber "American family" households. And only about 20 percent of families fit into the traditional structure with father as the only breadwinner.
Here is what has been happening: In the 1950s, 80 percent of adults were married; today, roughly 50 percent are. Why? Partly because people are delaying marriage, with the median age for a first marriage rising by four years for men and about five years for women. Second, divorce rates have more than doubled since the 1960s as marriage evolved from a sacrament to a contract. Third, millions more cohabit before marriage. Fourth, births to unmarried mothers, white and black, have risen from 5 percent in 1960 to about 35 percent today. So the new American family is a household with fewer children, with both parents working, and with mothers giving birth to their children at an ever older age, having fewer children, and spacing them further apart.
This is not good news. Twice as many married people indicate they are very happy as compared with those who aren't married. But it is the children who are most affected. The stable family of two biological parents—surprise, surprise!—turns out to be the ideal vessel for molding character, for nurturing, for inculcating values, and for planning for a child's future. By comparison, the children of single parents or broken families do worse at school and in their career. Marriage, or the lack of it, is the best single predictor of poverty, greater even than race or unemployment.
The result is a serious new divide in our society between the children of poorer, less educated, single parents and those of richer, better educated, and married parents. The married parents typically earn more than $75,000; in only 20 percent of cases do married parents with children earn less than $15,000.
The startling increase of those who grow up with only one parent has markedly added to poverty among children, shifting poverty from the old to the young. Children in mother-only families are more likely than those with two parents to be suspended from school, to have emotional problems, to become delinquent, to suffer from abuse, to take drugs, and to perform poorly on virtually every measure.
Working moms. The culture has also changed. Once, about 40 percent thought that a wife should help her husband's career rather than have one of her own. Now, 81 percent think she should have her own career, and 70 percent think that both husband and wife should earn money. Parental time with children has dropped from about 30 hours a week to around 17—yet 70 percent believe that children are not affected negatively by having a working mother unless they are under school age. Moreover, the vast majority of working mothers now say that even if the family did not need the income, they would continue working.
So a big question for everyone is how to reform Social Security and welfare so as to nourish marriage and raise the proportion of children who grow up in two-parent families. We should worry about a welfare system that pays unmarried mothers enough to have their own apartments and has led some to prefer babies to husbands. Research indicates that a 10 percent growth in welfare benefits increases by 12 percent the chances that a poor young woman will have a baby out of wedlock before the age of 22. This has been true for both whites and blacks.
This is one reason that, even after a significant reform of the welfare system, the single welfare mother has become the public symbol of much of what is wrong with America's social service programs. We must find ways to educate people to understand that it is a good idea to be married before having children. Federal aid should give incentives for couples to form and sustain healthy marriages, not encouragement for single parenthood and nonmarital birth. Social service benefits that phase out fairly quickly after marriage, for example, can actually create a marriage penalty. Nor should the tax code penalize couples who marry.