The decline in percentage of households with married parents and kids and the good life of suburbia

A recent release of data from the Census Bureau shows a decline in the percentage and absolute number of households consisting of married parents and children:

Photo by Yan Krukov on

The number of U.S. homes with a married couple and kids fell to a record low, according to new government data, as the pandemic further delayed weddings and more adults don’t plan to have kids at all.The share of the U.S.’s 130 million households headed by married parents with children under age 18 fell to 17.8% in 2021 from 18.6% last year, according to the Census Bureau. That’s down from more than 40% in 1970.

By absolute numbers, there are just 23.1 million homes with nuclear families, the fewest since 1959, the data show.

This has direct links to the rise of suburbs in the United States. One of the primary reasons Americans moved to suburbs in large numbers is that they believed – and often continue to believe – that the suburbs are the best settings in which to raise children. Suburban life revolved around children, from their schooling to activities to ensuring that they get ahead in life. Nuclear families, particularly with parents who had married young, became associated with suburbia and a particular era of American history.

Today, suburbia is much more complex. It still includes nuclear families and families wanting their children to succeed. But, it also includes single households, multi-generational households, older adult households where their children have grown and/or are still living occasionally, households where the partners are not married, and young professionals.

All of this means that the typical image of nuclear families in the suburbs may not be as prevalent or powerful as it once was. It still is important, particularly in more residential communities. But, as more different kinds of households also reside in suburbs, what communities values and how decisions are made may change. Are the suburbs of today just for families with children or do they have a responsibility to a broader audience? The future American vision of the suburbs may still include families and children but the depiction may also include other households that also contribute to the good of suburban community.

Does sprawl contribute to difficulty for adults in making friends?

One writer suggests the suburbs and their isolated spaces reduce the opportunities for friendship:

But when we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses. And when we have kids, we find ourselves tied to those houses. Many if not most neighborhoods these days are not safe for unsupervised kid frolicking. In lower-income areas there are no sidewalks; in higher-income areas there are wide streets abutted by large garages. In both cases, the neighborhoods are made for cars, not kids. So kids stay inside playing Xbox, and families don’t leave except to drive somewhere…

One is living in a real place, with shared public spaces, around which one can move relatively safely. It seems like a simple thing, but such places are rare even in the cities where they exist. (I live in North Seattle, undoubtedly coded as urban for census purposes, but my walkshed is pretty lame. Meanwhile, a few miles south of me they’re building million-dollar single-family homes square in the middle of a perfect walkshed, right across from the zoo.)

A robust walkshed is an area in which a community of people regularly mingles doing errands, walking their dogs, playing in the parks, going to school and work, etc. Ideally, cities would be composed of clusters of such walksheds, connected by good public transit…

Both these alternatives — walkable communities and co-housing — likely sound exotic to American ears. Thanks to shifting baselines, most Americans only know single-family dwellings and auto-dependent land use. They cannot even articulate what they are missing and often misidentify the solution as more or different private consumption.

Five quick thoughts:

  1. There is a lot of emphasis on the nuclear family in the United States, whether in suburbs or other areas. This could be contrasted with other societies that place more emphasis on multigenerational households or living near extended families.
  2. You don’t necessarily have to be in a city to have public spaces or walksheds like these. Many Americans express a preference for small towns and these communities can often be tight knit. Or, you could have denser areas in suburbs that have such public spaces.
  3. The article argues that college is a good example of what can happen when people are put in close proximity. I would argue that college is a very unusual outlier for many Americans where they are forced (they pay for this too) to live in close proximity and then spread out as soon as they get a chance. In fact, many college students try to get out of dorms ASAP while many others are commuters. The residential college experience is not one everyone experiences and it is an unusual setting for relationships.
  4. The broader American emphasis on individualism makes friendships more difficult regardless of public spaces. Think of the frontier or pioneer mentality or our current celebration of mavericks and solo entrepreneurs. Did Steve Jobs need friends? Would Americans have fulfilled their Manifest Destiny if they had stayed in their neighborhoods or small towns?
  5. Does the data back this up? What if Americans are satisfied with their friendships? Does the number of close friends differ by spatial context? This argument is made via anecdote but there are plenty of surveys that ask about friendships. For example, here is a simple table with GSS data on how much satisfaction Americans get from their friendships by spatial context:


The differences in this table are not large but this incomplete analysis suggests people from smaller communities derive more satisfaction from their friendships.

Poorer suburbs the result of fewer two-parent families?

One writer argues poorer suburbs ended up in this position because the suburbs were built for two-parent families in single-family homes and poorer communities have less of these families:

Before we can understand what makes some suburbs so miserable, we first have to understand what makes others succeed. The most successful suburban neighborhoods fall into two categories. First, there are the dense and walkable ones that, like the most successful urban neighborhoods, have town centers that give local residents easy access to retail and employment opportunities. These neighborhoods generally include a mix of single-family homes and apartment buildings, which allows for different kinds of families and adults at different stages of life to share in the same local amenities. The problem with these urban suburbs, as Christopher Leinberger recounts in his 2009 book The Option of Urbanism, is that there are so few of them, and this scarcity fuels the same kind of gentrification that is driving poor people out of successful cities.

The other model for success can be found in sprawling suburban neighborhoods dominated by households with either the time or the resources to maintain single-family homes and to engage in civic life. As a general rule, the neighborhoods in this latter category don’t allow for apartment buildings or townhomes on small lots. They implement stringent local land-use regulations that keep them exclusive, and they attract families that tenaciously defend the character of their neighborhoods.

There are many differences between these two models. But the most important one is that denser suburbs can accommodate family diversity relatively well while sprawling suburbs simply can’t. Living the low-density lifestyle requires that you either be rich in money or rich in time and skill.

Think about it this way. The typical postwar suburb was built to meet the needs of two-parent, single-breadwinner families. They were full of single-family homes that were rarely built to last, and their chief amenity was privacy, which generally meant a decent-sized lawn. Maintaining these houses was a heroic endeavor, but the division of labor implied by two-parent, single-breadwinner families meant that it was not an impossible one. Indeed, the very fact that maintaining these homes was such a chore made them precious to their owners, for whom they were a store of wealth as well as a place to live.

There is little doubt that the family structure in the United States has changed from the early days of the post-World War II suburban boom to today. And, numerous suburbs have going to have to respond to these changing demographics as they think about providing housing for older residents with no kids, single-parent families, and single households which are now the most common household type in the United States.

Yet, this argument seems too reductionistic. Similar to Rodney Balko’s argument about odd government dealings in St. Louis County, Missouri, I think this article ignores other important factors in the construction of suburbs, particularly policies and zoning and behaviors motivated by race and keeping non-whites out of wealthier suburban communities.

A rise in the number of “domino dads”

A new study suggests there is a rise in the number of fathers who have children with multiple mothers:

More than a quarter of all U.S. mothers with more than one child had some of those kids with different men, according to a new study.

Among African-American women with several children, that figure rises to more than half; among Hispanics, it’s more than a third, and among whites it’s 22%.

Multiple partner fertility, as the phenomenon is called in academic circles, is a cause of concern among many sociologists, since studies have shown that growing up in a home in which different men cycle in and out is not good for a child’s health or well being. Think of these families as having domino dads, with each one’s departure putting pressure on the next.

The articles goes on to discuss some of the negative impact this might have on children. But more broadly, this hints at a way of life for many that is quite different from the image of the nuclear family or even single-parenthood: families where multiple fathers are in and out of the picture.

Having children = family

New research from a University of Indiana sociologist suggests that Americans define a collection of people as a family if children are involved:

“Children provide this, quote, ‘guarantee’ that move you to family status,” Powell said. “Having children signals something. It signals that there really is a commitment and a sense of responsibility in a family.”

For instance, 39.6 percent in 2010 said that an unmarried man and woman living together were a family — but give that couple some kids and 83 percent say that’s a family.

Of course, the definition of family has changed over time. The “nuclear family” developed several hundred years ago as people moved away from a broader definition of family that included extended family members or other members of a community.

One can see this recent definition in action in many churches. Having children changes the status of couples from a social grouping not worthy of extra attention to a very important social grouping.