PRB Discuss Online: The Increasing Complexity of Family Life in the United States

(September 2011) Today, Americans are more likely to marry and to divorce than in almost any other Western nation. How has this pattern changed over the last 10 years? What are the implications for current and future generations? Johns Hopkins University professor Andrew Cherlin’s review of the research, “Demographic Trends in the United States: A Review of Research in the 2000s,” covers trends in marriage and cohabitation, divorce, fertility, children’s living arrangements, and aging. The article was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family (vol. 72, no. 3, 2010). He is also the principal investigator of the “Three-City Study,” an interdisciplinary study of low-income children and their caregivers in the post-welfare-reform era, and the pilot study “Intergenerational Support in an Era of Complex Kinship.”


In a PRB Discuss Online, Andrew Cherlin, study author and Griswold Professor of Sociology and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, answered questions from participants about family life in the United States over the past decade.


Sept. 8, 2011 1 PM (EDT)


Transcript of Questions and Answers


Richard Cincotta: When, in casual conversation, I ask an acquaintance, “Which siblings support your aged parents (or grandparents)?” I often encounter answers that seem to me to be very similar (even in higher fertility developing countries): one child provides most of the non-pension-provided support, a second provides funds/physical assistance occasionally, and the rest contribute almost nothing. It’s anecdote; the reasons for the pattern vary tremendously; but I perceive to frequently encounter it. What is the U.S. pattern for sibling support for aged parents? And is it influenced by divorce and remarriage in either generation, or race/ethnicity?
Andrew Cherlin: I don’t think there is a single, dominant pattern. You are right that it is common for one or two siblings to take responsibility, with the rest doing little. That one is often a daughter, and usually lives close by. Today’s elderly had more children than prime-age adults do today, so that in the future, there will be fewer siblings available to do the care.


Rick Schaefer: Other than the growing social and legal acceptance of same-sex marriage in the USA, what do you think is the most significant change in American families in the last ten years?
Andrew Cherlin: Rick, I think the most significant change is the rise in births to cohabiting couples. Most of the rise in “out-of-wedlock” childbearing in the last ten or fifteen years has been to women who are cohabiting rather than to women who are living without a partner. Having children in a cohabiting union is now acceptable to a broad range of young adults. Trends in the job market have made young non-college-educated youths reluctant to marry, but an increasing number will go ahead and cohabit and have children.


Robert Prentiss: How will single parent households living below the poverty line be able to send children to college as economic conditions make college both unaffordable in addition to making colleges classes no longer offered or available (as in California)?
Andrew Cherlin: A very good question without a clear answer. The problem will be worse for children who would like to attend selective colleges (such as the University of California system), where costs have been rising rapidly. Attendance at selective college may become more and more the privilege of well-to-do families while children from disadvantaged families attend less selective schools part-time, taking five or six or seven years to get a degree, while working to support themselves and pay tuition. A dual educational system.


Terri Ann Lowenthal: Dr. Cherlin, could you comment on the potential implications of your findings about our increasingly complex families and households for the conduct of the census and other household surveys? Thank you! I look forward to your presentation next week.
Andrew Cherlin: Survey research has always been based on the assumption that families reside in one household, so that if you sample a group of households, you are sampling a group of families. But families now extend over more than one household, sometimes over more than two, which makes the task of studying families via surveys (such as the Census) more difficult. That’s the most problematic aspect of family complexity for survey research.


Jenny Shea: Could you comment on the growing number of half-siblings created by sperm donation? How do you see this changing family life in the long term, and should the fertility industry be further regulated?
Andrew Cherlin: You may have read the same recent NY Times story as I did, which reported that some sperm donors are fathering 50 to 150 children. This is another example of how we are moving into uncharted territory in family life with little awareness of what’s happening. It seems very disturbing. But I’m not convinced that the consequences will be as bad as some people quoted in the article were saying. Other than the possibility of reproducing recessive genetic traits, I’m not sure it will have much in the way consequences. But it’s so new and startling that we need to think more about it.


Issa Almasarweh: How come it is difficult in the USA to buy cigarettes or alcohol if you are below the age of 21 years? While it is easier to date, get married, become pregnant and have children at earlier ages, sometime before age 18 years! Can protection be expanded to include avoiding early parenthood?
Andrew Cherlin: The problem is that Americans (and people in most other countries, too) think of having children as a basic human right, unlike smoking or drinking alcohol. Therefore, there is much resistance to any efforts that would prevent any woman, even a teenager, from having children. Every so often someone proposes a law that would require licenses to have children, much as we must have licenses to drive automobiles; but such proposals go nowhere. We must instead take steps to reduce the large number of unwanted pregnancies among teenagers.


ABDUL MALIK GHAURI: Do you agree that the responsible parenthood is the biggest challenge the humanity faces today and the real solution lies in making an international law to ensure responsible parenthood for the implementation of UN charter for the rights of children throughout the world? All parents; mothers and fathers should be legally bound to perform certain set of duties towards their children.
Andrew Cherlin: I am not convinced that further legislation would help. In the United States, all parents already are legally bound to provide adequate care for their children, and government agencies remove children from abusive parents. But there is little support for penalizing parents who divorce or for intrusive government inspections, etc. I think we need a campaign to urge parents to take their responsibilities more seriously.


Janna Z. Goldberg: Hi Dr. Cherlin, I am interested in the household formation processes of immigrant groups in cities. Do you think that doubling up, for economic reasons (shared rent) or access to familial care (childcare, etc.) will remain a trend in urban areas, or will families move toward the single family home model once the economy recovers and groups assimilate? I appreciate your insight.
Andrew Cherlin: Hard to know. The dominant cultural pattern is for families to aspire to single-family homes. Many of the recent immigrants come from cultures where extended-family living is more common and more accepted. So I think that even after the recession ends, we will see many extended families remaining. But my guess is that the children of today’s immigrants, when they grow up, will move toward the single-family dwelling, too, if their finances allow.


Boatemaa Sandra: What are some of the factors for the changing trends in marriage? What are their implications for research and policy?
Andrew Cherlin: An important recent trend is that young adults with a college degree are more likely to ever marry and much more likely wait until after they are married to have children. The tie between marriage and childbearing, which has been looser among the poor, is now loosening among moderately-educated Americans as well. The latter group is increasingly having children in cohabiting unions that are unstable, creating a higher level of family instability in children’s lives.


Tony Bentivegna: Does having divorced parents cause children to spend more time with TV/Computer use and lead to lower academic performance in college?
Andrew Cherlin: Having divorced parents make children marginally less likely to graduate from high school; I have not read anything about college performance. Or about TV/computer use. So we don’t know the precise mechanism. But overall, there is an increased risk of diminished education attainment among children whose parents were divorced.


Winnifred Nankinzi Kaggwa: 1. How can we do in the developing countries to tackle the increasing complexity of Family life with high fertility rates, maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality not only in USA? 2. Maybe its good to discuss the challenges of immigrants’ family life support and its impact on the nation?
Andrew Cherlin: I agree that the challenges of immigrants’ family lives is a central way that families are becoming more complex in developing countries. Sociologists are writing about “transnational families,” in which a parent, often the mother, immigrates to another, wealthier country and sends remittances to her family back in the home country, where her children remain. We need to know more about these new kinds of families.


Marlene Lee: Where does family as opposed to households fit into public policy issues in the U.S.? In your opinion, has the extent of the separation of family and household in the U.S. reached a point where the household is the really the only significant or practical unit that public policy can target? For example, poverty rates in the U.S. are really household measures more so than family measures, I think.
Andrew Cherlin: Marlene—I agree that the separation of family and household has important policy implications. But I think that sometimes it is still the family that is the important unit—if, e.g., a divorced couple has joint custody of their children. So is it household or family we care about? Probably a mix of both, depending on the problem.


Howard Iams: Do you expect the trends toward “escape from marriage” to continue over the next decade?
Andrew Cherlin: Howard—it’s only the non-college-educated who are escaping from marriage. Among that group, cohabitation is increasing, in part because of poor job prospects. As long as the economy provides little opportunity for the non-college-educated, I think that trend will continue. Among the college educated, marriage rates remain high (in part because their labor market opportunities remain relatively good).


Ryan: I have two questions, both related to the economy. Can you discuss the recent reports of couples who want to get divorced having to remain married (and often continue to live together) due to financial troubles? What effects might this have on their children? Also, now that more young adults are forced to move back in with their parents, do you see this as leading back to traditional models of families that you see/used to see in other cultures, or could it end up taking a new form?
Andrew Cherlin: In the Great Depression of the 1930s, divorce rates initially fell because unhappy couples couldn’t afford to get divorced. Some of that may be happening in today’s Great Recession, too. These marriages are not necessarily better for the children than would a divorce be. And it’s hard to know whether moving-back-in will create a lasting change or dissipate as the economy improves.


Harriet Shaklee: With the increases in out-of-wedlock births, and continuing rates of divorce and remarriage in the U.S., is it becoming the “norm” for families to include step relations? As the new normal shifts, what accommodations are being made in the broader social context?
Andrew Cherlin: While not quite yet the norm, it’s certainly more and more common for step relations to be part of family life. We need to allow stepparents to have some of the authority that biological parents do, such as being able to sign a permission slip for a field trip. We need to consider them as full members of our families. We are only slowly moving in that direction.


Jason Bremner: How much of the rise in births to cohabiting couples is due to the greater birth rate among Latinos? Wouldn’t we expect that Latinos would be less likely to marry given the legal challenges and fear they might face in getting a marriage certificate?
Andrew Cherlin: Latinos do contribute to births to cohabiting couples, but they come from a Catholic cultural tradition where marriage is important. So we actually find higher rates of marriage among Latinos than among non-Latinos with comparable incomes. So the cohabitation story is not just a story of Latinos. (In contrast, the fertility story is driven by Mexican-Americans, who have more children.)


Anna Lisa Fahrenthold: In your research, have you noted any significant changes in how and why families access child/day care for young children (birth to age 5)?
Andrew Cherlin: Not a great deal of change. But I do think that parents are increasingly seeing child care, especially children care provided by centers, as like school—an activity that is appropriate for all 3- and 4-year-old children, regardless of the employment status of the parents. That’s the way it is viewed in other countries, such as France, where universal preschool exists.


Neal Ritchey: Would you offer a typology of family formation in the modern era? What are the most salient dimensions? What are irrelevant specific joint dimension values that give rise to more parsimony via the typology than considering just the dimensions as shaping family formation?
Andrew Cherlin: Unfortunately, it would take me a long lecture, or maybe even a book, to answer your question well! In brief: Marriage is still important, but for many people it comes later life than it did a half-century ago, and people often have children and only afterward marry. Cohabiting relationships are very important, increasingly so, and so are single-parent families. With high (though declining among college-grads) rates of divorce, stepfamilies (both marital and cohabiting) are also important. I’m not sure if this can be made more parsimonious in the U.S. In Europe, some are advocating erasing the distinction between marriage and cohabitation. That doesn’t even work well there, although there are many more long-term cohabiting unions then here. In the U.S, marriages and cohabitating relationships are still distinct, with the latter being more fragile and requiring less commitment.


Jenny Shea: Thanks for answering my question. Piggybacking on your response: are there any other trends concerning marriage, birthrates, living arrangements, etc. you feel are overhyped, or changes that might not have as sweeping an effect as people perceive?
Andrew Cherlin: I think that for the last several decades we have overhyped the consequences for children of mothers working outside the home. With the possible exception of the first year of life, the effects some modest and perhaps even positive sometimes (as when the children of single mothers see their mothers working for pay, taking pride in their accomplishments, etc.)