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The Nuclear Family Lost

Updated on November 11, 2017
DanDnAZ profile image

Registered Architect, 40 years experience, investigative forensic specialist, engineering trained, college teacher, NCARB mentor, MBA.


It has been awhile since I published a hub. First, I have been unemployed for going on 7 months now, but I am not alone in my industry. After 32 years as an Architect, with vast credentials built up, I have not been too successful at even getting interviews, as I have not had the degree that has become the main devise that has been used by firms as a requirement for filling openings in staff. So, I went back to school for my degree, and that has really taken a large part of my time recently. While back in school I had to take a course on Social Problems, and I struggled in that class, as the topic is much farther to the left then I stand. However, there was one highlight. I wrote a paper on the nuclear family that did seem to get some comments, so I decided to publish it here. Hope you enjoy a more conservative view on the liberal social problem of the family.

The Nuclear Family Lost

This paper will be looking at the breakdown of the nuclear family in the United States over the last several decades. But before we begin we must define what a “nuclear family” is. The definition of the nuclear family is a mother, father, and (biological or adoptive) children (Skolnick, 1995) (Prince Edward Island). Although there are some that contend that the nuclear family is actually a product of the industrial revolution (Skolnick, 1995), see below, over the last several decades the United States has seen a movement away from that nuclear family model that had been a mainstay of society for decades. The nuclear family was thought to be universal as it served a basic biological need, the nurturing and defense of infants and young according to the Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in 1913 (Skolnick, 1995).

In recent years the trend has been going towards the single parent family (mother-only or father-only) with possibly an extended family support component. The single parent family has come about as a result of many events such as divorce, death, out of wedlock births, teen births, and imprisonment. These unwed mothers tend to be at a greater disadvantage than their divorced counterparts (Sawhill, 1998). The extended family was a major family component in many non-western societies as an obstruction to economic modernization (Wagner). Often in those societies a nuclear family might grow into an extended family as children grew, got married, and had children of their own. It has also been inferred that women in these extended family environments married younger and had more children as well (Wagner). It has been cited that the nuclear family came about from the industrial modernization, as the nuclear family was more “isolated” and freer to move as economic opportunities availed themselves for the money earner of the family (Skolnick, 1995). The extended family model would have much less mobility, so it would be less likely to migrate to find work.

The gravitation away from the nuclear family becomes a social problem, because as these single parent families grow in numbers, and percentage with respect to the rest of the population, they have a drain on many of society’s resources. These drains come in the form of resources aimed at assisting increased pregnancy for single mothers and teens. The growth of these types of family units has contributed to an increase in the welfare rolls and an increase in poverty, as three quarters of these family types end up on welfare (Sawhill, 1998). These single parent families would find themselves better off if both parents were together because even if unskilled labor, two minimum wages incomes would provide an income over $20,000 a year, which is above the poverty line of $16,476 a year for a family of four (Sawhill, 1998). The spread of single mother families has played an enduring role in poverty; in 1964 (the year that President Lyndon Johnson declared the war on poverty) thirty percent of the indigent families included a single mother family, but since the late 1970’s that has increased to sixty percent.

When mothers that divorced did remarry, they tended to remain in the same basic economic condition in the second marriage as they were in the first marriage (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). In the 1960’s and 1970’s most of the growth of these single parent families came as a result of divorce, however the accounted increase in the 1980’s and 1990’s was attributed to the blossom in out of wedlock births. A large percentage of those children born out of wedlock were born to teenage mothers. In fact, more than half of the first out-of-wedlock births are attributed to teen pregnancy and it is established at a young age in those women (Sawhill, 1998). Society has to allocate resources towards crisis pregnancy, family planning, health care, and many other services to protect and assist these children and women. Finally, these early child bearers will most likely not graduate high school, which directly impacts their capability to gain employment in higher paying skilled labor jobs (Sawhill, 1998). Without a high school education, it is most likely that college education will also fail to be obtained. From 1965 to 1980 unmarried mothers that completed college rose only four percent, from six percent to ten percent, with no change further since. “Among children whose mother did not finish high school, in contrast, the chances that she was unmarried from 13 percent in 1965 to over 40 percent in the mid 1990’s” (Sawhill, 1998).

One way to explain this social problem would be found in the concept that these single parent families tend to create a conflict in gaining scarce resources such as anti-poverty assistance (welfare), assisted health care, etc. as discussed previously (Del Mar College) and disruption of the system of education with the dropping out of high school teen mothers (Kornblum and Joseph) (Kaplan). These uneducated, unwed mothers are inherently disadvantaged through the loss of education which translates into reduced earning potential as a result of lowered skills. (Del Mar College). Children raised in poverty “experience an early initiation to sex” (Del Mar College), which will inevitably lead to the spread of STI’s as a result of risky sexual behavior by these youngsters, especially the marginalized males (Stoltenberg, 2000). “Women that had sexual intercourse between ages 10 and 14 were almost twice as likely to have had an STI” (Stoltenberg, 2000).

The “Interactionists focus on the subjective aspects of social life, rather than on objective, macro-structural aspects of social systems. One reason for this focus is that interactionists base their theoretical perspective on their image of humans, rather than on their image of society (as the functionalists do)” (Grinnell) and that people find symbols (meanings to communicate with others) (Kaplan). As an example, the perspectives of a husband, if one came from a stable nuclear family, would be seen as a provider and protector, where from an abusive environment, a husband would be an intimidator and bully. Using this as a basis for perspective, then conclusions could be drawn to how these individuals would see and weigh themselves. Males, especially marginalized ones trying to establish manhood, would devalue women to the point of seeing them as conquests or notches on a gun belt as evidence of sexual prowess. Children produced by these relations now become currency of manhood for these men. The women of this group find security in having a man figure in their life, regardless of what the man does possibly leading to a lowered self-esteem in these women. These women will turn to the children as symbols of motherhood, often taking on that identity of the children, which often becomes hard to separate later on.

The causes of this movement towards the single parent family unit have been by a more acceptant society. There is no longer the stigma towards the unwed mother as there once was, as characterized in the movie Grease (1978). “A few decades ago, there were real social penalties to be paid if a girl became pregnant outside of marriage. Young girls refrained from sex for fear of becoming pregnant and being socially ostracized. Among those who did get pregnant, shotgun marriages were common. Young men had to compete for women's affections by promising marriage or at least commitment. All of this changed during the 1970s and 1980s” (Sawhill, 1998). In 1960 roughly, half of the twenty-five-year-old women were not virgins when married, however by the late 1980’s five out of six were not (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). Furthermore, “Consider the ‘sexual revolution’ that de-stigmatized premarital sex. The origins of the sexual revolution might be traced to technological changes such as the pill or to social upheaval. But once sexual activity outside of marriage becomes socially acceptable, this could easily reduce marriage rates, since one strong incentive to marry has been removed” (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). To further the single mother family unit growth is a more permissive societal attitude towards sex outside of marriage escorted by the tolerance of women not choosing to marry (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002).

In 1960, most couples assumed that if a pregnancy occurred when having premarital sex that they would marry and raise that child together, but by the 1990’s one baby out of three were born to an unwed couple (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). Another way that these single parent families are created is through divorce. The Census Bureau recorded a doubling of divorces from 1963 to 1975 (2.3% to 4.8%) (Population Characteristics). As can be seen by United States Census record, the number of divorces has increased from 1.9% for men in 1950 to 6.4% in 2000, with a high of 7.6% in 1980, while women went from 2.8% in 1950 to 8.5% in 2000, with a high of 10.1 in 1980 as well (Marital Status, 2000). We have seen the divorce rates in the individual States do about the same going from low in 1990 of 3.0 per 1,000 in New Jersey in 1990, to a high of 11.4 per 1,000 in Nevada (Divorce Rates by States).

What changes can be made to public policy to stem these tides leading away from the nuclear family? To begin, something must be done to reduce the divorce rate. In the early twentieth century Americans realized the commitment towards their wedding vows and literally envisioned marriage as “till death do you part”, “Divorces were almost as rare as nonmarital births” (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). This past commitment to marriage is exemplified in 1962 when half of the people responding disagreed with the concept that parents should stay together, even if they did not get along, for the sake of the children. By 1977, over 80% disagreed with that concept (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). An option available to assist in the reduction of this divorce trend might be the Covenant Marriage. First passed in Louisiana, it was followed soon after by Arizona and Arkansas (Sanchez, Nock, Wilson, Wright). Couples that cognitively sanctify their marriage share greater confidence in that union (Sanchez, Nock, Wilson, Wright). Empirical data indicates that those that sanctify their marriages have superior marital happiness, experience less conflict, perceive more quality benefits, and adopt cooperative communication and conflict resolution (Sanchez, Nock, Wilson, Wright). These types of changes can possibly occur within the marriage without the outside influence of law and some findings would advocate that covenant marriage would be associated with lowered divorce rates (Sanchez, Nock, Wilson, Wright).

A more stable nuclear family unit, with biological children, lends itself to higher performance on school achievement testing, having fewer teenage pregnancies, finishing high school more frequently, attending college more often and earning more as young adults (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). To support a reduction in teen pregnancy and out of wedlock births is to encourage marriage and its benefits. A second method would be to “discourage sex, pregnancy, and births among teenagers” (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002).

Some existing types of programs that exist to enhance the goal of reducing single parent units are welfare reform, as discussed in the Brooking Policy Report #38. That report indicated that in the past, to reduce teen pregnancy, instruction centered on sex education, but often that is too little too late, traditionally speaking. A better curricula focus might be on reducing the spotlight on reproductive biology and more on teaching adolescents the skills required for relationships, peer pressure resistance, and negotiating difficult situations (Sawhill, 1998). Part of the problem is that boys and young men have not had accountability in their actions; however, the welfare reform act has mandated such accountability, noting that unwed fathers need to have the same work opportunities and be subjected to the same requirements as the mothers of their children (Sawhill, 1998).

Another apparent successful program that might curb the occurrence of single parent families is the covenant marriage. When there is a reduction of divorce, there will be an associated reduction of single parent families (single-mother or single-father). Covenant marriage has a positive impact on the divorce rate reduction,” Thus, our initial findings tentatively suggest that covenant marriage may be associated with lower divorce rates” (Sanchez, Nock, Wilson, Wright). Finally, with the indications of the Ellwood and Jencks report, it may be more helpful if the federal policy changes to allow for segregated census results of the disrupted families (step-families) from the biological families (Ellwood and Jencks, 2002). This might allow for an insight into the conclusions drawn in that report that biological nuclear family children fair better academically.

In conclusion, there appears to be a much more positive result with the nuclear family unit, than the single parent family unit, especially when there are biological children involved with that nuclear family. By finding a way to get society back to that model, it will benefit all of society. Failure of attaining this goal places many segments of our society at risk for not obtaining the fullness that society has to offer, by continued growth in poverty, teen pregnancy, and many other social problems found with the family.


Arlene Skolnick. 1995. Nuclear Families, Retrieved on November 21, 2010

Website, Prince Edward Island Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, Retrieved on November 21, 2010

Isabel V. Sawhill. 1998. Brookings Policy Brief Series #38, Teen Pregnancy Prevention: Welfare Reform’s Missing Component Retrieved on November 21, 2010

Amy E. Wagner, Extended Families – Study of The Extended Family, Retrieved on November 21, 2010

David T. Ellwood and Christopher Jencks. 2002. The Spread of Single-Parent Families in the United States since 1960, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Del Mar College, Corpus Cristi, TX, Sociological Perspectives: The Order and Conflict Model, Retrieved on November 22, 2010

William Kornblum and Joseph Julian. Sociological Perspective on Social Problem. Social Problems, Prentice-Hall, Inc. Reprinted in Crossroads for Kaplan University (p.1-19)

Kaplan University (2010). Social Problems Unit 1: Setting the Stage. Retrieved on November 20, 2010

John Stoltenberg. 2000. Of Microbes and Manhood. Ms., August/September 2000. Reprinted in Crossroads for Kaplan University (p.48-54)

Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA Website: Retrieved on November 22, 2010

Population Characteristics. 1976. US Census Bureau Publication Series P-20, No. 297

Marital Status: 2000, Census 2000 Brief. 2003. US Census Bureau Publication C2KBR-30

Divorce Rates by State: 1990, 1995, and 1999-2007, Division of Vital Statistics, National Center for Health Statistics, CDC

Laura Sanchez, Steven L. Nock, Julia L. Wilson, James D. Wright, Is Covenant Marriage a Policy that Preaches to the Choir? A Comparison of Covenant and Standard Married Newlywed Couples in Louisiana, Center for Family and Demographic Research, Bowling Green State University, Working Paper Series 02-06

© 2010 Dan Demland


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