Fewer than a fourth of U.S. households are made up of married couples with children under 18—a slight decline from 1990, when just over 25 percent of households were composed of married couples with children, according to figures released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau.
In addition, the proportion of households that are led by single mothers with children of school age or younger has edged up from 6.6 percent in 1990 to 7.2 percent last year, the bureau reported.
The new data from the 2000 U.S. Census show trends that have persisted since 1960 or even earlier, said Campbell Gibson, a senior analyst at the Census Bureau.
But the data are bound to revive questions about whether the nation’s schools have the right blend of programs to serve students from homes that are not in the traditional two-parent mold.
“Single-mother households tend to be poorer than married-couple households, with fewer potential breadwinners,” said Mark Mather, a demographer and policy analyst at the Population Reference Bureau in Washington. “There’s a negative impact on any children living in those arrangements. It’s not just a minor effect—it’s a major difference, not just in terms of poverty, but other types of measures of educational attainment, like staying in school.”
Others had similar concerns about the decline in the percentage of parents who are married and live with children under 18.
“It does take a certain amount of commitment to grow a child,” said Kelley D. Carey, a school demographer based in Hilton Head, S.C.
Schools Make Adjustments
Some of the ways schools have adjusted to the changing makeup of families over the years can be seen in the design of school buildings, Mr. Carey suggested.
“A set of school plans 25 years ago is remarkably different than one today: Today a huge percentage of facilities is taken up with special spaces—rooms to house counselors right and left, psychologists, aides, tribunals for discipline, alternative centers, special teachers for remedial programs,” he said.
He said that such changes have been introduced largely because school officials have felt increasing pressures to take on more parenting roles.
And that’s one reason today’s schools must be larger even if they serve the same number of students as in earlier years, he added.
But for all the attention paid to changes in U.S. families nationally, those trends have affected schools far less than have state and federal policy decisions to concentrate poor families in public-housing projects beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, argued Mr. Carey, who helps school districts conduct long-range planning.
“It loads up certain schools with above-average needs for extra resources,” said Mr. Carey, who points out that schools near public- housing projects serve a disproportionate number of children from single-parent households.
The Census Bureau plans to release more detailed data, broken out according to geographic region, and by racial or ethnic group, starting next month.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2001 edition of Education Week as Census Shows the Changing Face Of U.S. Households