A recent Pew poll
found that Americans are broadly tolerant of “non-traditional families” but
draw the line at single motherhood. The reasons may have more to do with the social cost — and cost to children — than any moral principle.
Today, nuclear families make up barely one in five
households in the US and nearly four in 10 births are to unmarried women — increasing numbers of whom are cohabiting with the child’s father.
asked about 2,700 people their thoughts about seven trends in modern
relationships that are upending what used to be considered the traditional
family: unmarried parents raising children; gay couples raising children;
single mothers; partners living together outside of marriage; working mothers;
interracial marriage; and women who never bear children.
The poll results suggest that Americans fall largely into
three equally sized camps. It is interesting to note the influence of religious
Roughly a third said the trends have no impact on society or
are positive. People who were positive about the changing family were overwhelmingly
women, Hispanics and East Coast residents who rarely if ever attend religious
Another third considered most of the changes harmful to
society. The only trends they accepted were interracial marriage and fewer
women having children. People who were unhappy with the trajectory tended to be
older, white Republicans who are married and religiously observant. They also
were more likely to be from the Midwest or South.
The third group tended to accept all the changes except for
single motherhood. Virtually all said the growing prevalence of mothers who
have no male partners around to help them raise children is bad for society.
This group tended to be young, Democratic or independent, and more heavily
Pew researcher Rich Morin suggests that ordinary people are
seeing children being raised successfully by, for example, young working
mothers and by gay and lesbian couples and consider the impact of change
“mostly positive”. The only thing they are really convinced about is that children
need two parents.
I have a couple of questions, though. First, how many people
actually see in their neighbourhood same-sex partners bringing up children? Not
many I think. More likely they see media reports saying that these arrangements
work well. We know, too, that there is social and political pressure to accept
Second, if barely one in five households contains a nuclear
family, a representative poll will reflect the views of many people who
themselves have departed from the norm, or are personally affected by the trend in some way. For example, 42 per cent of those
they had at least one step-relative. Such people might feel hypocritical if
they disapproved of some other variation on family life, so the trend would be
As for the effects on children, a recent federal report shows
that the nuclear family — “One or more children living with two parents who
are married to one another and are each biological or adoptive parents to all
children in the family” — is the family structure most conducive to children’s
health and wellbeing. Children in such families were more likely to be in
optimum health than those in six alternative family structures, included step-
or blended families.
The report, Family Structure and
Children’s Health in the United States, is based on data from the National
Health Interview Survey, 2001 to 2007.It says:
Children living in single-parent families had higher
prevalence rates than children in nuclear families for the various health
conditions and indicators examined in this report. However, when compared with
children living in other nonnuclear families, children in single-parent
families generally exhibited similar rates with respect to child health, access
to care, and emotional or behavioral difficulties.
In other words, nuclear families are the stand-out
performers, all other attempts at family life being much of a muchness.