The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.

On the Future of Family Structure


Economic outcomes for children are profoundly shaped by family structure. That much is not in dispute. What we know is that family structure in the United States is changing. A bare majority of U.S. children live in disrupted families, i.e., about half of 15-year-olds do not live with both biological parents. This is a huge driver of our persistently high child poverty rates and much else besides. As Ross and I argued in Grand New Party, and as Kay Hymowitz and University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox have documented, there has been a remarkable polarization in family structure as well, with more affluent households embracing a “neo-traditional” pattern — intact families led by two-earner couples in which one partner focuses on market labor while the other focuses on household labor, but duties are shared — and less affluent households tending to be led by single parents, usually overstretched mothers. Wilcox describes neo-traditional families as follows:

I think we’re going to see a continued growth of more egalitarian marriages in a large subset of the population. But we’re going to also continue to see what I call a neo-traditional model of family life. What I mean by neo-traditional is that it’s progressive in a sense that men, particularly religious men, are investing more and more—especially in the emotional arena—in their wives and children. But it’s traditional in that there’s still some kind of effort to, in a sense, mark off who is the primary breadwinner and who is the primary nurturer. That may mean that both the husband and wife are working in the outside labor force, but there’s still some effort to give the lead for breadwinning to the husband and the lead for nurturing to the wife. This kind of neo-traditional family model is here to stay. I think that prediction is somewhat at odds with what many of my colleagues in the academy would predict.

We have to think more seriously about family pluralism in the U.S. There are different models of family life in the United States, from single-parent families to more egalitarian married families to more neo-traditional married families. The first two tend to get most of the focus in the media. The third group gets less attention, but it makes up about a third of all families in the United States or more, depending upon how you describe neo-traditional. So they’re an important group. And what this research suggests is that the marriages in this neo-traditional group are happier and probably also more stable than the other forms of families in the U.S. 

In a thought-provoking essay at io9, Annalee Newitz offers thoughts on how family structure will evolve:


We are about to witness a revolution similar to what happened in the 1960s with the introduction of the Pill and other readily-available forms of birth control. Once women could have sex without fear of pregnancy, norms around sex shifted. Most young people began to have sex before marriage, and today it is common for people to have many sexual partners throughout their lives, most of whom they will never marry.

Today the revolution has to do with child rearing. Now that women can have children without needing a man to support them, it is going to become more common for women to have children outside marriage. But this doesn’t mean you’re necessarily going to see a rise in single motherhood. Women will be free to experiment with many different kinds of parenting arrangements, from raising children alone or with a female partner, to raising them in an extended family.

More reproductive freedom does not mean women will want to lead non-traditional lives or abandon their families. In twenty years, a woman might decide she wants children, but instead of getting married she wants to live with her parents and grandparents. Because she has the income to pay for her child’s needs, and to contribute to the family home, she now has the freedom to choose this option.

I get the impression that Newitz is right. Her argument dovetails with persuasive arguments about the direction of change in U.S. marriage and childrearing patterns made by feminist historian Stephanie Coontz

But while Newitz is definitely on to something, I tend to think that the changing shape of family pluralism in the U.S. is cause for concern. Family forms have always been diverse, Ozzie-and-Harriet was always an imperfect portrait of family life for many if not most Americans. Yet the fact that the balance is shifting even further away from two-parent households is going to stretch public resources to the limit. My guess is that intact neo-traditional families that Wilcox describes in his work will continue to yield the best outcomes with regards to educational attainment and household income and hard indicators of emotional well-being — e.g., levels of abuse, incarceration, institutionalization, etc. Of course, it is also possible that technological and cultural change will mitigate these effects.   

This new family landscape has interesting class implications, which Newitz touches on in her conclusion:

Bizarrely, a futuristic world of working women could take us back in time. We may return to arrangements that look a lot like what people had over a century ago, when servants and nannies took care of middle-class homes while the middle- and upper-classes ran countries and businesses. Except this time around, women’s incomes will be what allows a household to afford its servants. (Remember, the wealthiest families are dual-income.)

To draw on the work of economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, this just reflects an acceleration of existing trends:

While the benefits of one member of a family specializing in the home have fallen, the costs of being such a specialist have risen. Improvements in the technology of birth control have made investing in a wife’s human capital a better bet, and this has been abetted by a decline in discrimination and improved wages. These greater opportunities also connote a greater opportunity cost for a couple contemplating a stay-at-home spouse.

This has driven a cultural shift in the nature of marriage:

So what drives modern marriage? We believe that the answer lies in a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption. In case the language of economic lacks romance, let’s be clearer: modern marriage is about love and companionship. Most things in life are simply better shared with another person: this ranges from the simple pleasures such as enjoying a movie or a hobby together, to shared social ties such as attending the same church, and finally, to the joint project of bringing up children. Returning to the language of economics, the key today is consumption complementarities — activities that are not only enjoyable, but are more enjoyable when shared with a spouse. We call this new model of sharing our lives “hedonic marriage”.

Stevenson and Wolfers are also more sanguine about the polarization of marriage that Hymowitz and conservatives like myself often fret over:


Less educated women have their own market opportunities available to them and have less to gain from marrying today than in the past. The new hedonic model of marriage thrives when households have the time and resources to enjoy their lives. This suggests that increasing the financial stability of these households will lead to marriage rather than marriage leading to financial stability. 

Trends in marital behavior reflect a common-sense response to the economic and social circumstances surrounding us. Just as we have deregulated the economy so that firms and businesses can deal with changing conditions, the long-run trend in U.S. family policy has been to deregulate the marriage market, and the book of rules governing who can get married or divorced where and when has become much thinner. Yet much of the current political debate is precisely about re-regulating marriage. Our concern is that this re-regulation may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family. [Emphasis added.]

Let’s hope Stevenson and Wolfers are right. One wonders about the mechanism we ought to use to increase financial stability. Cultural change is a delicate process. British experience suggests that increasing transfers to increase financial stability and thus promote hedonic marriage among the less affluent isn’t a terribly effective strategy. Robust economic growth and job growth would be vastly preferable, though that prospect has arguably dimmed — not just because of the downturn, but because of structural shifts that could lead to further reductions in overall labor force participation among prime age males, a phenomenon that long predates the downturn. 

Annalee Newitz has given us much food for thought, and for that we should be grateful.


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