Seattle Times

Thursday, June 14, 2001, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Married with children: 2-parent homes on rise; experts debate reasons for trend

By Jonathan Peterson
Los Angeles Times
The Seattle Times

WASHINGTON - It is a familiar message, echoed on television, in Census Bureau reports and in the conventional wisdom of our culture: The two-parent family is in decline.

But is it? Some of the newest evidence suggests that the tidal flow away from two-parent families peaked years ago and may even be starting to change course. And the strongest hints of a change in behavior are emerging from low-income and minority communities.

An analysis of year-to-year government data found that the proportion of black children living with two married parents - although still near record lows - increased 11.8 percent from 1995 to 2000. The percentage of Hispanic children living with two married parents also appears to have risen, but at a statistically uncertain pace.

The move away from marriage "really seems to have come to a halt," said Wendell Primus, a poverty expert at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who, with colleague Allen Dupree, conducted the new analysis.

Causes of the shift remain uncertain, but some experts say the new numbers are only the latest sign that a decades-old pattern of social behavior may be starting to shift.

"It's an important story," said David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values, a New York private research organization that focuses on family issues. "That's what's new here - that something that just blew through society in the '70s, '80s and early '90s came to a dead stop."

The new numbers come from the government's Current Population Survey, which queried 50,000 households on a range of issues and enabled researchers to consider year-by-year trends in recent decades. And they follow other signs that the institution of marriage is not on its deathbed.

Social scientists have detected a modest, little-publicized drop in the divorce rate since the late 1980s, Blankenhorn said. They also have noted a decline in the birth rate of unmarried black and Hispanic women during the '90s. Similarly, the nonpartisan Urban Institute has reported that the percentage of low-income children living in single-parent households dropped 3 percent, to 41 percent, from 1997 to 1999. That conclusion was based on the research organization's ongoing survey of more than 42,000 families.

"Generally, the number of kids living with single mothers alone seems to have dropped, and the drop is larger among lower-income households," said Gregory Acs, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. "The drumbeat of bad news we've heard for 25 years has abated, in the data at least."

And despite a confusing series of Census Bureau reports, demographers generally agree that a majority of children live in two-parent homes, although the numbers had been slipping since the 1960s.

The Current Population Survey does not distinguish between families in which a child lives with two married biological parents and those in which one or both of the married parents is not related to the child by birth.

According to Primus' analysis, the percentage of black children living with two married parents last year was 38.9 percent, compared with 34.8 percent in 1995. The figure for Hispanics last year was 66.2 percent, compared with 64.2 percent in 1995. The figure of 78.2 percent for whites last year was considered essentially the same as the 78.5 percent in 1995.

The researchers found a similar trend among the lowest-income groups, with a less dramatic shift among the more affluent.

In Los Angeles, a welfare-rights activist said he had not detected any "huge" shift toward marriage. But he said there did appear to be some tendency among people who once lived separately to pool their resources, particularly those who no longer qualify for welfare.

"People say, 'I'm going to move in with so and so, given the cutoff,' " said Saul Sarabia, an activist for People on Welfare, a nonprofit, welfare-rights effort that serves mostly blacks and hispanics.

Copyright © 2001 The Seattle Times Company