Public Release: 

Report highlights trends showing a decline in child-centeredness in American society

Rutgers University

NEW BRUNSWICK/PISCATAWAY, N.J.-- There is a growing disconnect between American children and marriage -- society's chief child-rearing institution -- according to the latest report by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.

Fewer children are living in married-couple households and fewer married couples families have children compared to past decades, according to "Marriage and Children: Coming Together Again?" from "The State of Our Unions 2003," a report issued annually by the National Marriage Project.

The Census Bureau projects that by 2010 families with children will make up only 28 percent of all U.S. households, the lowest number in at least a century. Also, a majority of Americans disagree that the main purpose of marriage is rearing children, the report finds.

Marriage is making a big comeback in the popular culture through such hit movies as "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding" and reality television shows like "The Bachelor." Yet, while American adults still prize marriage and seek it for themselves, American children are less able to count on it as a secure foundation for their family lives, according to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, co-directors of the National Marriage Project.

"If there is a story to be told about marriage in recent decades, it is not that it is withering away for adults, but that it is withering away as a family experience for children," said Whitehead.

Key findings on the declining presence of marriage in children's family lives include:

More than a third of children are born outside of marriage, and the divorce rate continues to hover around 50 percent

  • There has been an 850 percent increase since 1960 in the number of cohabiting couples who live with children. Today, about 40 percent of unmarried-couple households include one or more children under age 18, and an estimated 40 percent of all children are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting household during their growing up years

  • The percentage of American children living apart from their biological fathers has doubled over the past four decades, from 17 percent in 1960 to 34 percent in 2000.

  • Nearly 70 percent of Americans disagree with the statement that "the main purpose of marriage is having children," compared to 51 percent of Norwegians and 45 percent of Italians.

  • A 1994 nationally representative sample found only 15 percent of the population agreeing that "when there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along."

  • According to a national Gallup survey, 40 percent of women in their 20s agree with the statement: "Though it might not be the ideal option, you would consider having a child on your own if you reached your mid-thirties and had not found the right man to marry."

In addition, the presence of children in American households has declined significantly:

  • In the 1800s, the percentage of American households with children was more than 75 percent. In 1960, this number had dropped to slightly less than half of all households. In 2000, less than 33 percent of households included children. By 2010, the Census Bureau projects that married couples with children will account for only 20 percent of total households, and families with children will account for little more than one-quarter of all households - the lowest share in at least a century.

Popenoe, a Rutgers sociology professor, said, "Population changes make children less central to our public concerns. They are pushed to the margins of the society, and, except when they cause mayhem or are victims of sensational crimes, to the sidelines of our social consciousness."

The National Marriage Project is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian and interdisciplinary initiative dedicated to informing the public on social trends affecting marriage. The researchers analyzed a wide range of data for this report. Previous reports included "Why Men Won't Commit: Exploring Young Men's Attitudes About Sex, Dating and Marriage" and "Who Wants to Marry a Soul Mate?" R

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The full report will be available on the National Marriage Project Web site, http://marriage.rutgers.edu, Wednesday, June 18 at 12 noon. To arrange interviews with the co-directors, contact Miguel Tersy, Office of Media Relations, 732-932-7084, ext. 616, or Theresa Kirby, National Marriage Project, 732-445-7922.

TO THE POINT: New Rutgers report highlights trends showing a decline in child-centeredness in American society

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