From the Cleavers to the Huxtables to the Simpsons, the faces and dynamics of the American family have changed over the decades on TV, but no sitcom or drama can accurately portray the picture of family life in America and Luzerne County.
Family is no longer mom and dad, two children, a dog and a white picket fence. Family can mean single moms or dads, stepfamilies, blended families, interracial families, foster parents, non-married parents and gay parents. As a matter of fact, fewer than 25 percent of American households are made up of a married man and woman with their children — a drop from 45 percent in 1960 — and that number is expected to fall to 20 percent by 2010, according to Martin O’Connell, chief of fertility and family statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Families are more complex than ever today,” said Lynn Evans Biga, director of Luzerne County Head Start, which provides school readiness programs to more than 1,000 children, ages 3 and 4, from low-income households.
The majority of the changes in families over the decades can be traced to the economy, according to Bridget Costello, professor of sociology at King’s College, Wilkes-Barre. She noted the industrialization in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s as being a main cause. “One of the big reasons for the changing structure of the family is the rising female participation in labor force in the past few decades,” she said. “When men’s wages began to stagnate, women had to go out to work to bring an extra income into the household. But that also had a big impact upon divorce rates because now you have a conflict within the household as to who was doing the housework.”
In times of economic prosperity, she said many chores, such as cooking and cleaning, were often outsourced by the family.
The very definition of family has also changed to include persons who are not blood relatives, but who are also important to someone in their living arrangement, such as residents of a senior citizen apartment dwelling or members of a fraternity house. “In the coming years, we will start to see more people blending family and non-family members,” said Costello.
Costello thinks that the economic recession may have even more of an impact upon communities as more households take on boarders in order to make ends meet. She foresees people opening up spare rooms to college students or single people who can’t afford rent. There may even be a barter system of exchange for rent, with services being exchanged for lodging instead of money.
In 2006, 67 percent of the U.S. households were two-parent households. In just three years, that number dwindled to 31 percent. In Luzerne County, and particularly Wilkes-Barre, more grandparents are raising their grandchildren, according to Biga, especially over the past five years. The latest census survey shows that in Luzerne County, nearly one half of all grandparents are responsible for most of their grandchildren’s basic needs.
Today, family members can reside in low-income housing or even a homeless shelter. Twelve of the children enrolled in Head Start programs are listed as homeless.
With more than 23 percent of all families in Luzerne County being of the Latino origin, more children are dual-language learners today, said Biga, with the tots learning Spanish at home and English at school.
Biga has seen many changes at Head Start since its inception in 1965. The biggest impact as the agency enters 2009 is the economic recession. Volunteer levels have gone down as more parents try to juggle two part-time jobs to equal the paycheck of the full-time position they no longer have. Consequently, these parents may be spending less time with their children, she said.
There are other reasons for the change in the makeup of the American family. More babies are now born out of wedlock (about a third), with many mothers raising the child as a single parent. Female heads of the household typically earn less than men, about $20,000 less, according to the Population Resource Center.
The 2007 American Community Survey, from the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that there were 41,387 married-couple households in Luzerne County out of 57,450 residents. There were 13,553 female heads of households compared to 2,510 sole male providers.
Census data shows that 26 percent of all households are made up of a single person, living alone (as opposed to 13 percent back in 1960). Especially in Luzerne County, many of these persons are senior citizens, half of them in apartment complexes.
Women are also starting families later, having fewer children and spacing out their families more. The U.S. fertility rate has declined to its lowest level in history, according to the Hoover Institution.
Many federal laws don’t protect untraditional families, so they face tremendous challenges with respect to housing, employment, adoption, insurance, child custody and health care.