NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Children Live In A Multiplicity Of Family Types

April 24, 2001

Has there been a reversal in the decades-long trend of U.S. family living arrangements away from the traditional nuclear family? Apparently not.

A widely reported Census Bureau study appeared to claim that a larger proportion of children are living in a traditional nuclear family, married parents with their biological children. (See, for example, Haya El Nasser, "More Children Live in Traditional Families," USA Today, April 13, 2001 -- summarized in Daily Policy Digest.)

But actually, the first sentence of the news release on the study was misleading.

  • The news release said, "The proportion of children living in a traditional nuclear family with their biological mother and father increased from 51 percent in 1991 to 56 percent in 1996, the Commerce Department's Census Bureau said today."
  • But actually, according to the report and its author, Jason Fields of the Census Bureau, the overall proportion of children living with their married biological parents has remained essentially unchanged, about 62 percent, throughout the early and mid-1990s.
  • Both statements are true because the Census Bureau defines a nuclear family as two married biological parents and children -- with no other relatives or unrelated individuals in the household.

Thus the proportion of traditional families (married parents with biological children) that are extended to include others -- such as a grandparent, niece, or boarder -- have declined, which may be due to the improving economy.

The report, "Living Arrangements of Children 1996," highlights the multiplicity of family arrangements that occur due to divorce, remarriage and cohabitation. For instance, including adoptive and stepparents, 71 percent of children under 18 years of age lived in two-parent households.

Source: Tamar Lewin, "Confusion Ensued After Census Report on Two-Parent Families," New York Times, April 21, 2001.

For Census report


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