The nuclear family has just exploded! That's the slant, anyway, of most popular coverage of the 2000 census figures, which show that traditional nuclear families--two married people with children--dipped below one quarter of American households for the first time ever. Meanwhile the percentage of adults who live as couples without marrying rose from 3% in 1990 to 5% in 2000.
Publications and writers as diverse as The New York Times, Cal Thomas, and the news service of the American Family Association pontificated on "disturbing news about the state of the traditional family," described "staggering moral decay," and judged that "traditional families of the past are becoming more difficult to locate in the debris."
But do the census facts mean the family is really eroding, and do they express evidence of moral decay? Maybe, and maybe not. First let's reality-check some data--what it seems to mean, versus what it means.
Living alone. What really jumps out about the census data is the fraction of Americans living alone, now at 25%--highest figure ever, and exceeding the percentage of traditional nuclear families. Percent of Americans living alone has been going up throughout the postwar era, and the rise shows no sign of abating.
What's the cause? Well, one factor is that America as a country is aging--the median age is now 35, versus 33 in 1990--and older people tend to live alone as their families move on. Another factor is longer lifespans, now up to an average of 79 years for women. Women who outlive their husbands tend to live alone after the husband's death. Many older people living alone may wish they weren't. But to the extent living alone results from longer life, it's hard to complain about.
Affluence, though, is the real factor. People often live in groups (families, shared homes or apartments) because they can't afford to live separately. Increasingly, they can. Some kind of watershed was reached in 1976, when the number of rooms in American housing stock surpassed the number of Americans for the first time. That is, since then the typical American has had a room of one's own; the trend is escalating as new home size continues to expand but average household size continues to fall. Living alone gives you an entire place to yourself, no family or roommates, no complications. This is what many people prefer, and the economy is generating enough resources that they can make the choice.
Morals. Slow statistical decline of the traditional nuclear family may evince a waning commitment to marriage, or at least a waning commitment to sticking out marriages through thick and thin. But we shouldn't leap to the conclusion that this figure proves some kind of moral decay, because other American moral indicators are positive. Teen pregnancy, teen sexual activity, teen drinking and drug use (as well as in most age groups) have been declining for a decade. The new census figures show out-of-wedlock births in decline, along with a shallow decline for the rate of divorce. (There were slightly more divorced Americans in 2000 than 1990, causing some headlines erroneously to report that divorce was up; but considering population growth, the frequency of divorce was slightly down.)
So the complete picture is mixed. A swing away from the traditional in household family structure, but a swing toward the traditional in sexual activity and avoidance of divorce. Modern life is complicated; so are modern moral barometers.
Gay households. The numbers for gays living as committed couples, though small compared with the population as a whole, nevertheless rose. Those who think homosexuality is wrong won't be pleased. But if, as most gays and lesbians contend, being homosexual is the way God makes you, then once social barriers against same-sex relationships come down, you would expect homosexuals to try to form the same kinds of family bonds that heterosexuals do. And this is what the figures show--gays and lesbians increasingly trying to form families or family-like relationships.
Is all this good for our bodies and minds? Many people prefer either to live alone or can't find the right partner. Many others have suffered in bad marriages or abusive families. To them, the decline of traditional nuclear families and the rise of solo living may equal freedom.
Yet statistics also show that living alone and family breakup aren't good for you. Bickering and skillet-throwing aside, married people live longer, with better quality of health (less heart disease, less hypertension) than single people or the divorced. Married men and women are also less likely to suffer mental health problems, especially clinical depression.
Those who live alone (regardless of reason) also live less long, with worse health indicators, as those who live in families or groups (whether married or informal relationships). Unipolar depression, the condition in which a person simply always feels bad even if there's nothing specific wrong with his or her life, is much higher among those who live alone than those who live with others. Nature, or our Maker, seems to have designed us mainly to live in families or groups. When we don't, it shows up in health data.
Is all this good for our souls? If nothing else, the new census figures should help chart some of the course for religious and spiritual organizations. More and more people are likely to live by themselves, granting them freedom but causing loneliness and depression and perhaps causing them to need spiritual community even more. The number of traditional nuclear families is still getting smaller, meaning kids who may need extra counseling and fathers and mothers struggling to raise kids without partners to help them. Gays are experiencing the commitment-making and family-forming urge, which means they will need pastoral counseling, and they'll want religious organizations to make up their minds about whether faith will sanction homosexual marriage.
Finally, on the whole, we're all going to be around longer. This means we will have more time to seek spiritual answers--and also to experience more crises and doubt. The day-to-day aspects of faith may, increasingly, not be about telling a basic lesson, but tending to adherents across many decades.