Friday, December 20, 2013

Census Bureau Takes a Small Step in Better Describing the Structure of the Modern Family -- but More Can Be Done

by George Masnick
On November 25 the Census Bureau released its latest package of tables describing American families and living arrangements. These tables highlight the growing complexity of living arrangements among children—and the challenges that demographers and housing analysts face in charting changing household composition.

Since 2007 these tables have included a breakdown of family groups that identify couples who were not legally married but were joint parents of at least one minor child in the household.  This change reflects the trend for families to increasingly be started by the birth of a child rather than by marriage. Over 85 percent of births to teens are out of wedlock, as are over 60 percent of births to 20-24 year olds and over 30 percent of births to 25-29 year olds. Among those in their 20s co-residence of the parents is usually the norm, but in many cases, marriage does not take place for several years, and may never take place, certainly if the couple splits up.  Prior to 2007, these particular family groups were lumped into the category of “other families” with either a male or female reference person as head.  It was impossible under this old definition to distinguish in the tabulated data when unmarried family groups contained joint parents.

Many who referred to the older data assumed (incorrectly) that if adults in such family groups were not “currently married,” then the child or children were living in a “single”-parent household.  The implication was that unmarried two-parent households would behave more like one-parent households than like married couples across a wide range of issues of importance for public policy, including housing consumption.

The magnitude of the numbers of two-parent families under the old and new definitions can be seen in Exhibit 1.  While only about 7 percent of two-parent families are not married, that number is up from 5 percent in 2007. (Click exhibits to enlarge.)

Source: Current Population Survey March and annual Social and Economic Supplement, 2012 and earlier, Table FM-2;

In 2013 about 76 percent of all parents of minor children were married. Among young adults with minor children, however, the share that is currently married is much lower than this average (Exhibit 2). Only 43 percent of such parents under the age of 25 are married, as are just 65 percent of parents age 25-29.  The higher shares of older parents of minor children that are married reflect both the lower share of births to unmarried women when these parents were younger as well as the tendency for people to marry later. Whether today’s younger cohorts of parents will carry forward higher percentages of unmarried two-parent and “single”-parent living arrangements when they reach middle age remains to be seen.  I have put the word “single” in parentheses because it refers to legal marital status only, and these parents may well be partnered. 

When the parents of minor children are broken down by race/ethnicity we can see quite a large amount of variability in marriage/living arrangements (Exhibit 3).  The largest discrepancy is between Blacks and Asians.  Only 51 percent of Black parents are currently married compared to 89 percent of Asian parents of minor children. The share of non-Hispanic White parents of minor children who are married is almost 82 percent. Fully 42 percent of Black parents are in “single” parent living arrangements compared to only 9 percent of Asians. We would like to be able to identify the degree to which these differences are accounted for by differences in age of parents and by nativity status, but the data in the Census Bureau’s releases do not allow us to fully do this.  The data are especially silent when attempting to determine the presence of non-parent adults in the “single” parent category.

While identifying joint-parent unmarried couples as a separate category is a step forward, especially among parents in their 20s, a further breakdown of the data is still needed to better describe the modern family.  Married couples consist of persons in their first marriage and those who have been remarried.  If we are now identifying unmarried parents that are both the biological parent of at least one minor child in the household, shouldn’t we also identify married couples where only one parent is the biological parent of any child?  Some “single” parents are living with a partner to whom they are not married, who for all intents and purposes are helping to support the family and acting like a parent.  Some “single” parents are living with non-partner adults who also might be playing parental roles.  Many children are in “joint custody” households.  These “blended” and “extended” living arrangements are all very much part of the modern family, but cannot be readily identified in the Census data, especially by age cohort.

The next steps that the Census Bureau can take to present a better picture of the modern family seem straightforward.  Marital status could include a category “remarried,” and married couples should be further broken down by marriages in which one or both partners are remarried. Unmarried parents of minor children could be broken down by those living with a partner and those not. Among those not living with a partner, the presence or absence of other adults could be identified.  Minor children in married couple living arrangements could be identified as the biological child of both parents or as a stepchild of one parent.  And minor children in the household could be identified as living exclusively in the household or regularly spending some of their time in another household.

Generational differences in living arrangements at the onset of family formation, and the extent to which these differences persist as cohorts age, are key descriptors of the modern family. Therefore, many of the CPS tables should provide the age of the reference parent as a variable that is cross tabulated against other variables.  It would also be helpful if these new tables are produced separately by race/Hispanic origin of the reference parent.  This detailed breakdown by age and race/Hispanic origin will stretch the CPS data quite thin, to be sure, but the user can always aggregate up to gain robustness.

Finally, a few comments about the sharp decline since 2007 in Exhibit 1 in the number of two-parent families with minor children. This decline is certainly related to the effects of the Great Recession.  One reason for the decline is that immigration fell sharply in 2006 and has just begun to recover. Immigrant women have higher fertility than native born and experienced the greatest fertility decline during the economic down turn. These are trends consistent with the poor economic conditions that have affected young adults most severely.  Immigrants also have a much higher share of births to married couples compared to native born (76.4 percent versus 61.2 percent), and the decline in immigration during the Great Recession thus contributed to the recent rise in the share of all births that are to unmarried women.

It is normal that during a recession, both marriages and births are postponed.  A recovery in marriages would be expected to lag the recovery in the economy to allow for some planning of the event.  Meanwhile, both the decline and the recovery in births should each lag the trend in the economy by a year or more.  Although year-to-year instability in the CPS series is often the result of simple random variability, perhaps the upturn in 2013 in the number of families with minor children is further evidence that the economic recovery has begun in earnest. 

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