Family structure in the United States

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An American family composed of the mother, father, children, and extended family. Family jump.jpg
An American family composed of the mother, father, children, and extended family.

The traditional family structure in the United States is considered a family support system involving two married individuals providing care and stability for their biological offspring. However, this two-parent, nuclear family has become less prevalent, and alternative family forms have become more common. [1] The family is created at birth and establishes ties across generations. [2] Those generations, the extended family of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, can hold significant emotional and economic roles for the nuclear family.

A nuclear family, elementary family or conjugal family is a family group consisting of two parents and their children. It is in contrast to a single-parent family, the larger extended family, and a family with more than two parents. Nuclear families typically center on a married couple; the nuclear family may have any number of children. There are differences in definition among observers; some definitions allow only biological children that are full-blood siblings, but others allow for a stepparent and any mix of dependent children including stepchildren and adopted children.

An extended family is a family that extends beyond the nuclear family, consisting of parents like father, mother, and their children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, all living in the same household.


Over time, the transtructure has had to adapt to very influential changes, including divorce and the introduction of single-parent families, teenage pregnancy and unwed mothers, and same-sex marriage, and increased interest in adoption. Social movements such as the feminist movement and the stay-at-home father have contributed to the creation of alternative family forms, generating new versions of the American family.

Divorce, also known as dissolution of marriage, is the process of terminating a marriage or marital union. Divorce usually entails the canceling or reorganizing of the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage, thus dissolving the bonds of matrimony between a married couple under the rule of law of the particular country or state. Divorce laws vary considerably around the world, but in most countries divorce requires the sanction of a court or other authority in a legal process, which may involve issues of distribution of property, child custody, alimony, child visitation / access, parenting time, child support, and division of debt. In most countries, monogamy is required by law, so divorce allows each former partner to marry another person.

Teenage pregnancy pregnancy in human females under the age of 20

Teenage pregnancy, also known as adolescent pregnancy, is pregnancy in a female under the age of 20. Pregnancy can occur with sexual intercourse after the start of ovulation, which can be before the first menstrual period (menarche) but usually occurs after the onset of periods. In well-nourished females, the first period usually takes place around the age of 12 or 13.

Same-sex marriage in the United States expanded from one state in 2004 to all fifty states in 2015 through various state court rulings, state legislation, direct popular votes, and federal court rulings. Same-sex marriage is also referred to as gay marriage, while the political status in which the marriages of same-sex couples and the marriages of opposite-sex couples are recognized as equal by the law is referred to as marriage equality. The fifty states each have separate marriage laws, which must adhere to rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States that recognize marriage as a fundamental right that is guaranteed by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, as first established in the 1967 landmark civil rights case of Loving v. Virginia.

At a glance

Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships, 1970-2000 Families US.png
Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships, 1970–2000

Nuclear family

The nuclear family has been considered the "traditional" family since the communist scare in the cold war of the 1950s. The nuclear family consists of a mother, father, and the children. The two-parent nuclear family has become less prevalent, and pre-American and European family forms have become more common. [1] Beginning in the 1970s in the United States, the structure of the "traditional" nuclear American family began to change. It was the women in the households that began to make this change. They decided to begin careers outside of the home and not live according to the male figures in their lives [3]

These include same-sex relationships, single-parent households, adopting individuals, and extended family systems living together. The nuclear family is also choosing to have fewer children than in the past. [4] The percentage of married-couple households with children under 18 has declined to 23.5% of all households in 2000 from 25.6% in 1990, and from 45% in 1960. 2015

Single parent

A single parent (also termed lone parent or sole parent) is a parent who cares for one or more children without the assistance of the other biological parent. Historically, single-parent families often resulted from death of a spouse, for instance in childbirth. This term is can be broken down into two types: sole parent and co-parent. A sole parent is managing all of the responsibilities of child rearing on their own without financial or emotional assistance. A sole parent can be a product of abandonment or death of the other parent, or can be a single adoption or artificial insemination. A co-parent is someone who still gets some type of assistance with the child/children. Single-parent homes are increasing as married couples divorce, or as unmarried couples have children. Although widely believed to be detrimental to the mental and physical well being of a child, this type of household is tolerated. [5]

A single parent is a person who lives with a child or children and who does not have a wife, husband or live-in partner. A single parent may have either sole custody of the child or joint physical custody, where the child lives part-time with each parent. Reasons for becoming a single parent include divorce, break-up, abandonment, death of the other parent, childbirth by a single woman or single-person adoption. A single parent family is a family with children that is headed by a single parent.

This figure illustrates the changing structure of families in the U.S. Only 7% of families in the U.S. in 2002 were "traditional" families in the sense that the husband worked and earned a sufficient income for the wife and kids to stay home. Many families are now dual-earner families. The "other" group includes the many households that are headed by a single parent. Types of us households 2002.png
This figure illustrates the changing structure of families in the U.S. Only 7% of families in the U.S. in 2002 were "traditional" families in the sense that the husband worked and earned a sufficient income for the wife and kids to stay home. Many families are now dual-earner families. The "other" group includes the many households that are headed by a single parent.

The percentage of single-parent households has doubled in the last three decades, but that percentage tripled between 1900 and 1950. [6] The sense of marriage as a "permanent" institution has been weakened, allowing individuals to consider leaving marriages more readily than they may have in the past. [7] Increasingly, single parent families are due to out of wedlock births, especially those due to unintended pregnancy.

Unintended pregnancies are pregnancies that are mistimed, unplanned or unwanted at the time of conception.


Stepfamilies are becoming more familiar in America. Divorce rates are rising and the remarriage rate is rising as well, therefore, bringing two families together making step families. Statistics show that there are 1,300 new stepfamilies forming every day. Over half of American families are remarried, that is 75% of marriages ending in divorce, remarry. [8]

Extended family

The extended family consists of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. In some circumstances, the extended family comes to live either with or in place of a member of the nuclear family. An example includes elderly parents who move in with their children due to old age. This places large demands on the caregivers, particularly the female relatives who choose to perform these duties for their extended family. [9]

Historically, among certain Asian and Native American cultures the family structure consisted of a grandmother and her children, especially daughters, who raised their own children together and shared child care responsibilities. Uncles, brothers, and other male relatives sometimes helped out. Romantic relationships between men and women were formed and dissolved with little impact on the children who remained in the mother's extended family.

Roles and relationships

Married partners

A married couple was defined as a "husband and wife enumerated as members of the same household" by the U.S. Census Bureau, [10] but they will be categorizing same-sex couples as married couples if they are married. Same-sex couples who were married were previously recognized by the Census Bureau as unmarried partners. [11] Same-sex marriage is legally permitted across the country since June 26, 2015, when the Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges . Polygamy is illegal throughout the U.S. [12]

Although cousin marriages are illegal in most states, they are legal in many states, the District of Columbia and some territories. Some states have some restrictions or exceptions for cousin marriages and/or recognize such marriages performed out-of-state. Since the 1940s, the United States marriage rate has decreased, whereas rates of divorce have increased. [13]

Unwed partners

Living as unwed partners is also known as cohabitation. The number of heterosexual unmarried couples in the United States has increased tenfold, from about 400,000 in 1960 to more than five million in 2005. [14] This number would increase by at least another 594,000 if same-sex partners were included. [14] Of all unmarried couples, about 1 in 9 (11.1% of all unmarried-partner households) are homosexual. [14]

The cohabitation lifestyle is becoming more popular in today's generation. [15] It is more convenient for couples not to get married because it can be cheaper and simpler. As divorce rates rise in society, the desire to get married is less attractive for couples uncertain of their long-term plans. [14]


Parents can be either the biological mother or biological father, or the legal guardian for adopted children. Traditionally, mothers were responsible for raising the kids while the father was out providing financially for the family. The age group for parents ranges from teenage parents to grandparents who have decided to raise their grandchildren, with teenage pregnancies fluctuating based on race and culture. [16] Older parents are financially established and generally have fewer problems raising children compared to their teenage counterparts. [17] In 2013, the highest teenage birth rate was in Alabama, and the lowest in Wyoming. [18] [19]


A housewife or "homemaker" is a married woman who is not employed outside the home to earn income, but stays at home and takes care of the home and children. This includes doing common chores such as: cooking, washing, cleaning, etc. The roles of women working within the house has changed drastically as more women start to pursue careers. The amount of time women spend doing housework declined from 27 hours per week in 1965, to less than 16 hours in 1995, but it is still substantially more housework than their male partners. [20]


A breadwinner is the main financial provider in the family. Historically the husband has been the breadwinner; that trend is changing as wives start to take advantage of the women's movement to gain financial independence for themselves. According to The New York Times , "In 2001, wives earned more than their spouses in almost a third of married households where the wife worked." [21] Yet, even within nuclear families in which both spouses are employed outside the home, many men are still responsible for a substantially smaller share of household duties. [22]

Stay-at-home dads

Stay-at-home dads or "househusbands" are fathers that do not participate in the workforce and stay at home to raise their children—the male equivalent to housewives. Stay-at-home dads are not as popular in American society. [23] According to the U.S. Census Bureau, "There are an estimated 105,000 'stay-at-home' dads. These are married fathers with children under fifteen years of age who are not in the workforce primarily so they can care for family members, while their wives work for a living outside the home. Stay-at-home dads care for 189,000 children." [24]


Only child families

An only child (single child) is one without any biological or adopted brothers or sisters. Only children often perform better in school and in their careers than children with siblings. [20]

Childfree and childlessness

Childfree couples choose to not have children. These include: young couples, who plan to have children later, as well as those who do not plan to have any children. Involuntary childlessness may be caused by infertility, medical problems, death of a child, or other factors.

Adopted children

Adopted children are children that were given up at birth, abandoned or were unable to be cared for by their biological parents. They may have been put into foster care before finding their permanent residence. It is particularly hard[ clarification needed ] for adopted children to get adopted from foster care: 50,000 children were adopted in 2001. [25] The average age of these children was 7,[ clarification needed ] which shows that fewer older children were adopted. [25]

Modern family models

Same-sex marriage, adoption, and child rearing

Same-sex parents are gay, lesbian or bisexual couples that choose to raise children. Nationally, 66% of female same-sex couples and 44% of male same-sex couples live with children under eighteen years old. [23] In the 2000 United States Census, there were 594,000 households that claimed to be headed by same-sex couples, with 72% of those having children. [26] In July 2004, the American Psychological Association concluded that "Overall results of research suggests that the development, adjustment, and well-being of children with lesbian and gay and bisexual parents do not differ markedly from that of children with heterosexual parents." [27]

Single-parent households

Single-parent homes in America are increasingly common. With more children being born to unmarried couples and to couples whose marriages subsequently dissolve, more children live with just one parent. The proportion of children living with a never-married parent has grown, from 4% in 1960 to 42% in 2001. [28] Of all single-parent families, 83% are mother–child families. [28]

Adoption requirements

The adoption requirements and policies for adopting children have made it harder for foster families and potential adoptive families to adopt. Before a family can adopt, they must go through state, county, and agency criteria. Adoption agencies' criteria express the importance of age of the adoptive parents, as well as the agency's desire for married couples over single adopters. [29] Adoptive parents also have to deal with criteria that are given by the birth parents of the adoptive child. The different criteria for adopting children makes it harder for couples to adopt children in need, [29] but the strict requirements can help protect the foster children from unqualified couples. [29]

Currently 1,500,000 (2% of all U.S children) are adopted. There are different types of adoption; embryo adoption when a couple is having trouble conceiving a child and instead choose to adopt an embryo that was created using another couples sperm and egg conjoined outside the womb, this often occurs with leftover embryos from another couples successful IVF cycle. international adoption where couples adopt children that come from foreign countries, and private adoption which is the most common form of adoption. In private adoption, families can adopt children via licensed agencies or with by directly contacting the child's biological parents.

Male/female role pressures

The traditional "father" and "mother" roles of the nuclear family have become blurred over time. Because of the women's movement's push for women to engage in traditionally masculine pursuits in society, as women choose to sacrifice their child-bearing years to establish their careers, and as fathers feel increasing pressure to be involved with tending to children, the traditional roles of fathers as the "breadwinners" and mothers as the "caretakers" have come into question. [30]

African-American family structure

The family structure of African-Americans has long been a matter of national public policy interest. [31] The 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, known as The Moynihan Report , examined the link between black poverty and family structure. [31] It hypothesized that the destruction of the Black nuclear family structure would hinder further progress toward economic and political equality. [31]

When Moynihan wrote in 1965 on the coming destruction of the Black family, the out-of-wedlock birthrate was 25% amongst Blacks. [32] In 1991, 68% of Black children were born outside of marriage. [33] In 2011, 72% of Black babies were born to unwed mothers. [34] [35]

Television portrayals

The television industry initially helped create a stereotype of the American nuclear family. During the era of the baby boomers, families became a popular social topic, especially on television. [36] Family shows such as Roseanne , All in the Family , Leave It to Beaver , The Cosby Show , Married... with Children , The Jeffersons , and Good Times, Everybody Loves Raymond have portrayed different social classes of families growing up in America. Those "perfect" nuclear families have changed as the years passed and have become more inclusive, showing single-parent and divorced families, as well as older singles. [5] Television shows that show single-parent families include Half & Half , One on One , Murphy Brown , and Gilmore Girls .

While it did not become a common occurrence the iconic image of the American family was started in the early-1930s. It was not until WWII that families generally had the economic income in which to successfully propagate this lifestyle. [37]

See also


Further reading

Related Research Articles

Cohabitation is an arrangement where two or more people are not married but live together. They often involve a romantic or sexually intimate relationship on a long-term or permanent basis.

Adoption process whereby a person assumes the parenting for a child born by other parents

Adoption is a process whereby a person assumes the parenting of another, usually a child, from that person's biological or legal parent or parents. Legal adoptions permanently transfers all rights and responsibilities, along with filiation, from the biological parent or parents.

A stepfamily, blended family, or bonus family, is a family where at least one parent has children that are not genetically related to the other spouse or partner. Either parent, or both, may have children from previous relationships. Children in a stepfamily may live with one biological parent, or they may live with each biological parent for a period of time. In addition, visitation rights mean that children in stepfamilies often have contact with both biological parents, even if they permanently live with only one.

LGBT adoption is the adoption of children by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT+) people. This may be in the form of a joint adoption by a same-sex couple, adoption by one partner of a same-sex couple of the other's biological child, or adoption by a single LGBT+ person. Joint adoption by same-sex couples is legal in twenty-seven countries as well as several subnational jurisdictions and dependent territories. Furthermore, some form of step-child adoption is legal for same-sex couples in five countries. Given that constitutions and statutes usually do not address the adoption rights of LGBT persons, judicial decisions often determine whether they can serve as parents either individually or as couples.

Conjugal family

A conjugal family is a nuclear family that may consist of a married couple and their children or a couple who are unmarried or underage. Conjugal means there is a marriage relationship. The family relationship is principally focused inward and ties to extended kin are voluntary and based on emotional bonds, rather than strict duties and obligations. The spouses and their children are considered to be of prime importance, and other more distant relatives less important. The marriage bond is important and stressed.

Sociology of the family is a subfield of the subject of sociology, in which researchers and academics evaluate family structure as a social institution and unit of socialization from various sociological perspectives. It is usually included in the general education of tertiary curriculum, since it is usually an illustrative example of patterned social relations and group dynamics.

Japanese family

The family is called kazoku (家族) in Japanese. It is basically composed of a couple as is the family in other societies. The Japanese family is based on the line of descent and adoption. Ancestors and offspring are linked together by an idea of family genealogy, or keizu, which does not mean relationships based on mere blood inheritance and succession, but rather a bond of relationship inherent in the maintenance and continuance of the family as an institution.

In the Canadian Census such families consisting of a married couple and children are referred to as Census Families. The US Census Bureau refers to such household structures as "Married couple families." This demographic features the highest median household income in the United States.

LGBT parenting refers to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people raising one or more children as parents or foster care parents. This includes: children raised by same-sex couples, children raised by single LGBT parents, and children raised by an opposite-sex couple where at least one partner is LGBT.

Family group of people affiliated by consanguinity, affinity, or co-residence

In the context of human society, a family is a group of people related either by consanguinity, affinity, or co-residence or some combination of these. The purpose of families is to maintain the well-being of its members and of society. Ideally, families would offer predictability, structure, and safety as members mature and participate in the community. In most societies, it is within families children acquire socialization for life outside the family. Additionally, as the basic unit for meeting the basic needs of its members, it provides a sense of boundaries for performing tasks in a heterosexual environment, ideally builds a person into a functional adult, transmits culture, and ensures continuity of humankind with precedents of knowledge.

Adoption in Australia deals with the adoption process in the various parts of Australia, whereby a person assumes or acquires the permanent, legal status of parenthood in relation to a child under the age of 18 in place of the child's birth or biological parents. Australia classifies adoptions as local adoptions, and intercountry adoptions. Known child adoptions are a form of local adoptions.

Same-sex marriage and the family

Concerns regarding same-sex marriage and the family are at the forefront of the controversies over legalization of same-sex marriage. In the United States, an estimated 1 million to 9 million children have at least one lesbian or gay parent. Concern for these children and others to come are the basis for both opposition to and support for marriage for LGBT couples.

<i>Du Toit v Minister for Welfare and Population Development</i>

Du Toit and Another v Minister for Welfare and Population Development and Others is a decision of the Constitutional Court of South Africa which granted same-sex couples the ability to jointly adopt children. LGBT people had already been able to adopt children individually, but only married couples could adopt jointly; the decision was handed down in September 2002, four years before same-sex marriage became legal in South Africa. The court ruled unanimously that the statutory provisions limiting joint adoption to married couples were unconstitutional, and the resulting order amended the law to treat same-sex partners in the same way as married couples.

Law in Australia with regard to children is often based on what is considered to be in the best interest of the child. The traditional and often used assumption is that children need both a mother and a father, which plays an important role in divorce and custodial proceedings, and has carried over into adoption and fertility procedures. As of April 2018 all Australian states and territories allow adoption by same-sex couples.

Prior to several rulings by the Supreme Court of the United States, adoption laws varied widely by state. Some states granted full adoption rights to same-sex couples, while others banned it entirely or only allowed the partner in a same-sex relationship to adopt the biological child of the other partner. On June 26, 2015, the Supreme Court struck down all bans on same-sex marriage in the United States. On March 31, 2016, a Federal District Court struck down Mississippi's ban on same-sex couples from adoption. On June 26, 2017, the Supreme Court reversed an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling and ordered all states to treat same-sex couples equally to opposite-sex couples in the issuance of birth certificates. These court rulings have made adoption by same-sex couples legal in all 50 states.

African-American family structure

The family structure of African-Americans has long been a matter of national public policy interest. A 1965 report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, known as The Moynihan Report, examined the link between black poverty and family structure. It hypothesized that the destruction of the Black nuclear family structure would hinder further progress toward economic and political equality.

Family in ancient Rome

The Ancient Roman family was a complex social structure based mainly on the nuclear family, but could also include various combinations of other members, such as extended family members, household slaves, and freed slaves. Ancient Romans had different names to describe their concept of family, including "familia" to describe the nuclear family and "domus" which would have included all the inhabitants of the household. The types of interactions between the different members of the family were dictated by the perceived social roles each member played. An Ancient Roman family's structure was constantly changing as a result of the low life expectancy and through marriage, divorce, and adoption.

A stepchild or, informally, stepkid is the offspring of one's spouse, but not one's own offspring, neither biological nor through adoption.


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