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Behind the Census Numbers

May 28, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: The 2000 Census figures released earlier this month describe a nation of increasingly complex and extended family trees.

The new numbers reveal that the makeup of the American family continues to change. Married couples with children now only make up 24 percent of all households and households headed by single mothers increased by more than 25 percent during the last decade. In addition, the number of Americans living alone grew almost twice as fast as the population did during the 90’s, to over 27 million.

The 2000 Census also showed that Americans are living longer; the median age of a U.S. resident increased during the 1990’s to 35.3 years, the highest ever compared with 32.9 years a decade before. The number of Americans 85 and older surged 37 percent during the 1990’s, while the nation’s total population rose just 13 percent.

Finally, data released previously showed that Hispanics in the U.S. are close to surpassing blacks as the largest minority group in the nation. The Latino population grew by over 58 percent over the 1990’s, to reach 35.3 million, just under the current Black population of 36.4 million.

What does it all mean? We’re joined by Martha Farnsworth Riche, a demographer and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau; Reverend Andy Hernandez, professor of Political Science at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio and author of the Almanac of Latino Politics 2000; and Isabel Sawhill, an economist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Well, guests, during the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of “gee whiz, man bites dog” sort of headlines about some of these numbers. Where would you guide us? What would you want us to look at? Martha Farnsworth Riche?

MARTHA FARNSWORTH RICHE: Well, I think that we need to acknowledge that every single household type grew in numbers, but what I find particularly interesting is that share of households with kids in them declined below a third of all households. That’s a decline that’s been going on for a long time as our population gets older; that is, as Americans live longer lives, more of their children have grown past age 18. So that’s a natural thing to happen, but it still means that our families now look a lot different from the families with kids that were so common when we had shorter lives.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve explained what’s feeding into that number. But what’s the significance of the number? How does it change the way we live?

MARTHA FARNSWORTH RICHE: Well, I think one of the most significant things is that we have more people at older ages, at older ages pre-retirement. We have more equal numbers of people in every adult age group. And so that means that we’re going to be seeing in all our institutions, whether it’s schools, whether it’s work, whether it’s businesses, we’re going to be seeing a whole set of interests simultaneously of younger adults and middle aged adults and older adults all asking to be met. And that’s going to be pretty interesting.

RAY SUAREZ: Isabel Sawhill, when you look at the numbers, what jumps out at you?

ISABEL SAWHILL: I think what jumps out at me is the fact that we have much more varied living arrangements and family patterns than we used to. You mentioned the sharp decline in the number of married families with children; that’s about half what it was in 1960. We have a lot more single-parent families raising children. We have a lot more unrelated single individuals just heading up their own household and living by themselves. Some of those are young people who haven’t yet formed families. And many of them are older people who now have the economic wherewithal to not have to live with their grown children.

RAY SUAREZ: Can we over-emphasize some of these numbers? You know, a lot of people have glommed on to that living single number when many of these people are perhaps transitionally single – not yet married or just widowed or widowers.

ISABELL SAWHILL: Oh, I think it would be very easy to look at this and suggest that it was somehow or other unfortunate, because I think the reality is a lot of this is a reflection of our affluence. It used to be that young people had to live with their parents until they got married; they couldn’t afford to go out and get their own apartment, which is so common nowadays, and similarly with the elderly.

I do think it’s somewhat troubling, though, that so many children are growing up in single parent families. We know from the research that it is better – other things being equal – to be raised in a two-parent, married family. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t single parents out there who are doing heroic jobs in raising children, but I think, in general, it’s not a good trend when you have more and more children being raised by only one parent. And, increasingly, those children have been born to a woman who was never married, and many of them have very loose, if any, connection to their fathers. And most of them or a very large proportion of them, anyway, have very low incomes.

RAY SUAREZ: Andy Hernandez, take us beyond the headlines and the raw numbers to what you would want us to remember about the context.

ANDY HERNANDEZ: Well, I think one of the changes that’s been talked about quite a bit over the last few months is just this great increase in the racial diversity of our nation, and that’s reflected in the increase in ethnic and racial diversity of our families. If you look at the student population, only about 2/3 – over 2/3 – 63, 65 percent — now of the student population is non-Hispanic white; the rest are minority. If you look at other trends, including immigration trends, they’re really bucking some of the trends of non-Hispanic whites. For example, Hispanics tend to have almost 18 percent of their households in family households, so there’s a counter trend; they tend to have children in their households – 55 percent have children in their households. They tend to have larger families. And while it is true that the rate of the rise in single female households with children has also occurred in the Hispanic community, it has occurred at basically the same rate. It hasn’t occurred any faster than any other group.

So I think there are counter trends that the Hispanic community because of its large population growth, because of these immigrants – are bringing to the table. And on the question of whether of not we have a change in what we understand families to be, I think that’s happening. I think these demographic changes are changes in the way we think of ourselves as Americans and the way we think of ourselves as a family.

RAY SUAREZ: Certainly one of the things that social scientists are always trying to puzzle out when looking at the counter trends that you suggest is whether over time the Hispanic family profile will start to resemble that of the population as a whole, or whether this will sort of posit – present to the rest of society a different way of having families that will affect America as much as America affects these newcomers.

ANDY HERNANDEZ: Well, I think you have to look at what people say in surveys about what they want, their family values and what they want for their children. And if you look at what Latinos say, when asked to define what they mean by the American dream, they all want, the majority of them, to make a better life for our children. When immigrants were asked why do you come to this country, the overwhelming majority said to work and make a better life for our children.

So I think there’s great – not only interest but there’s a deep-seeded value, vision, and hope and aspiration on the part of Hispanic families to make a better world for their children. Now, how do we explain the fact that many Hispanic families are being beset by all kinds of challenges and problems? Well, I think a lot of it has to do with class. I think you have to look at economics; I think you have to look at poverty. There’s nothing written that just because you have a two-headed family household that they’re not going to be dysfunctional. There’s nothing written in stone that a one-parent family household or an extended family household without the traditional nuclear family household as we think of it, two parents and children, are necessarily dysfunctional. You have to ask the question what’s led to these families being created in this way that leads to them being dysfunctional? There are a number of two parent with children family households that are also dysfunctional and also challenged by a lot of the same problems.

RAY SUAREZ: So how do we puzzle this out, Isabel Sawhill? The numbers also say that the skyrocketing rates of divorce moderated; the increasing rates of teen childbirth moderated during these years, some of the push back that is creating single family households. How should we understand what’s going on in this 281 million people that points us to the future?

ISABEL SAWHILL: Well, it’s a very complicated picture, first of all. But if I were to try to simplify it, I would say that what’s happened is the divorce rate has leveled off. The divorce rate was increasing rapidly in the 60’s and the 70’s, and then it leveled off since the early 1980’s, and that’s not what’s driving the growth of single parent families anymore. I’m also glad you mentioned the fact that the teen birth rate is coming down; both teen pregnancy and birth rates have come down quite dramatically in the 1990’s, and that’s very good news, although we still have rates that are more than twice as high as most other industrialized countries. And I think that’s a problem. I think early child bearing outside of marriage is a problem, and it’s that early child bearing outside of marriage that is still driving the growth of single-parent families.

So it’s not just that there’s a second parent lacking in that family; it’s also that many of those families are formed, more than half of them, when they’re still in their teenage years. Too many of them have not completed much schooling. They’re very – have a very difficult time making it in today’s labor market, which, of course, requires a lot of education, and so those children are also at risk of not having access to the American dream because of the fact that they were born to a very young, single mother.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Martha Riche, maybe you could continue that thread, because we tend to see these numbers, especially when they’re fresh and new, in strictly social terms, who we are kind of terms; but they have tremendous economic impact, don’t they?

MARTHA FARNSWORTH RICHE: Well, they certainly do. One point I’d like to make is that in reference to the Hispanics and other populations, they’re younger. All of our minority populations are considerably younger than our white, non-Hispanic population. And that’s what’s driving the increasing diversity in the schools and amongst young people.

At the same time we see much, much less diversity amongst older people, people who are concerned about saving for retirement, about Social Security and all those things. So I think that makes it a little harder for us to find commonality in the dialogues that we have over how we take our resources, our public resources, and put them in one place, or another place. That’s going to continue. All of the trends that we’ve been talking about here, ongoing trends, we do expect to continue to have longer lives, and that’s good – but we’re doing it at a slightly different pace. We can look at our commonality and say that on average Americans have two children per family, and they all want to do well by them, and that education is important for all of them. But that’s what we have to learn to do – to not look at superficial differences, I’m old, you’re young, I’m majority, you’re minority, but at the real commonalities we have for getting the American dream and moving all of our kids ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: One thing that jumped out at me is that there are fewer 25 to 34 year olds.


RAY SUAREZ: Than there were earlier. It’s sort of a small age —


RAY SUAREZ: — cohort surrounded by big ones. What does that mean over time?

MARTHA FARNSWORTH RICHE: Well, that’s the other factor that’s going on here, though we don’t all of us have the same number of children in each generation – we know we had this very large baby boom; they’re the ones right now who are entering the empty nest stage. And that’s part of making married couples without children our largest household type. The group that came right after them is called the baby bust. That’s our 25 to 34 year old group; they’re much, much smaller; they actually declined by about 15 percent. And so it’s remarkable that during the 1990’s, even given this, every year we had more children born in this country than we did the year before. But there’s no doubt that when we have these different generations replacing one another, in a given part of the life cycle, that causes some consternation until you understand what’s going on.

RAY SUAREZ: And Andy Hernandez, we’ve talked about social and economic – maybe some political trends we should be looking for coming out of these numbers?

ANDY HERNANDEZ: Well, I think that the point that has been well made is that we are going to have some political interests coming out of different perceptions of need. If you have only about a quarter of the American households that have children in them, then you’re not going to be building a large political base for those kinds of issues that require investment – things like education, like early childhood care. And to complicate matters, because so many of those children will look very different from the children that non-Hispanic whites know and grow up with — as you know, one of the things that has come out in the census data is that we tend to be more segregated than we were 10 years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Residentially you mean?

ANDY HERNANDEZ: Residentially. That’s right. So children, white children and non-Hispanic whites are growing up in neighborhoods that there are no Blacks and Hispanics for all practical purposes. There are certainly none that reflect a good majority of Hispanics or Blacks or working poor. The other point I want to make here is it’s really important to understand that families are set in communities, that you can’t separate communities from families. And the fact of the matter is that right now about 61 percent of all Latino children are growing up in poor neighborhoods, about a third are in poverty. Over half, more than half are growing up in poor neighborhoods. So these kinds of questions where minorities are growing up in poor neighborhoods will lead to different kinds of policy and political interest – policy outcomes based on political interests — and I think we are all going to have, unless we are able to frame our vocabulary in a way that’s inclusive of all the children and all groups, and all Americans, we’re going to have a clash around political interests because of the demographic changes.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, thank you guests all for this snapshot of a work in progress. Thanks.