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The Changing Shape of the American Family

Cohen calls for tax and labor policy to catch up with changing social norms

The “typical” American nuclear family is no longer typical, according to MPRC faculty associate Philip Cohen. In the 1950s, 65 percent of children were growing up in a home with a breadwinner father and a homemaker mother who were married to each other. Today, only 22 percent of children live in that type of family situation. Instead, many children are being raised by single mothers, single fathers, grandparents, or by a parent cohabitating with an unmarried partner. Those parents who are married to each other are much less likely to follow the traditional male-breadwinner/female-homemaker model. "There hasn't been the collapse of one dominant family structure and the rise of another," says Cohen. "It's really a fanning out into all kinds of family structures."

In a study prepared for the Council on Contemporary Families, Cohen highlights what he says are the three most significant changes in American family life during the past 50 years.

  • A decline in marriage: household headed by married couples declined from 66 percent in 1960 to 45 percent by 2010.
  • The increase in the numbers of women entering the paid workforce.
  • The rising number of blended, remarried and co-habiting families. 

“We are no longer well-served by policies that assume most children will be raised by married-couple families, especially ones where the mother stays home throughout the children's early years," says Cohen. He calls for laws and policies that govern taxes and work hours to catch up with the changing social norms.


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