Economists love analyzing how technology and globalization have affected American business and labor in the postwar era. But that’s not the whole story. In his recent book, Home Economics: The Consequences of Changing Family Structure, Nick Schulz outlines how family structure has changed since the 1950s, and what that’s meant for the US economy. Schulz says the “collapse of the intact family is one of the most significant economic facts of our time.”
For instance: In 1960 almost 70% of adults ages 20-29 were married vs. about a quarter today. One result of the decline in marriage rates has been the increase of children born to single or cohabiting parents. The percentage of births to never-married women has gone from approximately 16% in 1982 to 35% in 2008:
The percentage of children under age 18 living with two married parents has declined from 67% to 34.5% for blacks, 91% to 72.9% for whites, and 88% to 66.7% overall (see featured graph).
There are many possible contributing factors to these changes, according to Schulz. Among them:
– Women’s role in the workforce, as they are able to provide more economic stability for themselves and children without being married.
– A decline in middle-class manufacturing jobs in the United States which may have “driven middle-class males from the labor force, making them less marriageable.”
– Shifting attitudes towards sex outside of marriage, and easy access to birth control and legal abortion.
Whatever the proper weighting of those factors, they combine to create an increasingly unstable family structure for children. Scary fact: According to researchers at the University of Michigan, “over 65 percent of cohabiting couples with kids are separated by the time the child turns ten years old.”
The result? Adolescents who have lived apart from one of their parents for some time of their childhood are, according to researchers Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, “twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age twenty, and one and a half times as likely to be ‘idle’—out of school and out of work—in their late teens and early twenties.”
The family is one of the main producers of skills, both cognitive (such as reading, writing, and the ability to solve math and logic problems) and noncognitive (such as “the ability to play fairly with others, to delay gratification, to control emotions”), which are essential to employment.
For example, Schulz references a study on how home life affects noncognitive skills, measuring children’s self-control. It showed that children who had a father in the home were far more likely to choose a delayed (and larger) reward rather than a small and immediate one.
The breakdown of the intact, two-parent family means, for millions of people, the breakdown of one of the chief mechanisms for instilling these skills necessary for economic success in children. It also means increased “economic disparities and…greater dependence on government.”
As the family structure continues to change, it will continue to have social and economic consequences. Now that we know, what will we do about it?