Washington Post

Return of the Nuclear Family

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
The Washington Post
Friday, August 10, 2001; Page A25

Eventually, the facts start catching up with the preconceptions. Eventually, the evidence for good news becomes so strong that even the most hardened pessimist has to acknowledge that, just maybe, things are looking up.

So it is with reports on the demise of the two-parent family. You'll recall a spate of stories this spring saying that the mom-and-dad-and-kids family was disappearing. The evidence for that proposition was thin or, more precisely, old. In truth, the family appeared to be staging a modest comeback.

Since then, the story of the fading family has faded further, because the latest studies are even more definitive: Sometime in the 1990s, the family began staging a comeback.

Take, for example, a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities issued in mid-June. Between 1995 and 2000, researchers Allen Dupree and Wendell Primus found, the proportion of children younger than 18 living with a single mother dropped from 19.9 percent to 18.4 percent. The drop was statistically significant. More good news: "The proportion of children living with two married parents (including stepparents) remained essentially unchanged during this period, at about 70 percent." A decade earlier, the share of children living with two parents had been dropping.

Especially striking is the improvement in the status of low-income families. During the 1980s, the proportion of poor kids living with a single mother increased from 32.6 percent to 34.3 percent. But, noted Dupree and Primus, "this increase reversed in the late 1990s, with the proportion of lower-income children living with a single mother declining between 1995 and 2000." Among blacks and Hispanics in this period, the proportion of children living with two married parents increased.

Given all the troubles the family had between the 1960s and the 1990s, this good news is also very big news. But it hasn't received much attention. Credit for an early willingness to see an important story here goes to Walter Shapiro of USA Today, Jonathan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times and Economist magazine. The Economist's excellent and balanced July 26 primer, "At last, good news on the family (probably)," should go into the briefing papers of any politician about to make pronouncements on the state of the American family.

Why do we resist this good news? There are reasons, right and left.

Some in the pro-family movement have honorable reasons for not wanting to see the good news exaggerated. They argue (correctly) that family breakup is still a big problem and that too many kids still live without two parents.

But there are also some -- especially in groups that raise a lot of money through frightening direct-mail solicitations -- who have an interest in painting the United States as morally depraved and, quite literally, on the road to hell. Good news is definitely bad for their business.

And you wish (or at least I do) that arguments over the state of the family could be separated from arguments over gay rights. Treating gay men and lesbians with dignity and respect does not pose a threat to the family. Indeed, the negative trends on the family began in the 1960s, when homosexuals still faced ostracism. Families are coming back together at a moment when there is more tolerance and acceptance.

I don't claim a cause-and-effect relationship here, only that the evidence does not support the idea that the rise of gay rights and the decline of the family go hand in hand.

Those of us who are parents and heterosexuals ought to take responsibility for our family lives and not blame others for, say, divorce or child abandonment. What David Boaz of the libertarian Cato Institute wrote seven years ago is still true: that the "scapegoating of gay men and lesbians . . . is not going to solve any of American families' real problems."

But the left also needs to see the slow return of the two-parent family for what it is: good news. It doesn't make you a reactionary to acknowledge what social science has long found: All things being equal, kids are far better off with two parents than one. Anyone raising kids knows the job is hard enough when both parents are around.

To say this is not to deny that some marriages can be destructive and really are doomed. It is certainly not to scapegoat single mothers. My dad died when I was a teenager, so I know how heroic and magnificent single mothers can be.

But the "bourgeois family," as some on the left derisively called it, remains an essential institution that should be treasured and nurtured. The fact that family trends are improving suggests that most Americans agree.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company