Only 18% Of US Households Are Now Nuclear Families

If you and your siblings grew up in a stable two-parent household within the last 30 years or so, you might have felt like the odd ones out at times among classmates and friends. 

By Gwen Farrell4 min read

It’s no secret that the number of two-parent families has been steadily falling since the 1950s, when the term “nuclear family” was first coined and attributed to a prosperous, post-war baby boom. But now, those households are becoming increasingly rare. The U.S. Census Bureau found that this year, in fact, the rate of two-parent households in the U.S. is lower than it’s been since 1959: only 17.8%

Is the Pandemic To Blame?

We know that the pandemic, apart from wreaking havoc on our economy and widening the already gaping political divide, has also had a deleterious effect on mental health.

Feelings of hopelessness and despair, combined with imposed lockdowns and quarantine, have resulted in alarming increases in substance abuse and overdoses, as well as widespread development of serious conditions like depression, which is often left untreated but combated with drugs and alcohol. A recent survey of 1,008 individuals, ages 18 to 35, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs studied these effects and the proliferation of mental health disorders and substance abuse as a result of the pandemic. 

Young adults say the pandemic has delayed plans they may have previously had for their lives – like marriage and children. 

Of the survey participants, 65% answered that they have felt an increased sense of loneliness since the onset of the pandemic. 76% reported feeling anxiety, and similar numbers reported experiencing depression and a feeling of disconnectedness from others. Consequently, 30% of the participants reported “harmful and dependent levels of drinking,” including weekly binge drinking, and “38% said their drug use was severe.” A different survey from a separate study found that 1 in 5 adults says their mental health has worsened in the past year, in addition to other sentiments like feelings of hopelessness, restlessness, the inability to concentrate or be productive, and feeling like planning for the future is impossible. 

Young adults have also reported that the pandemic has delayed goals and plans they may have previously had for their lives – like marriage and children. But it’s also possible that for many, their own childhood experience of being raised in a single parent household has dictated these decisions, and the pandemic has only reinforced them with increased loneliness, isolation, and disconnection.

Sexual Liberation Destroyed the Family but Didn’t Make Us Happier

The pandemic may have irrevocably changed much of our nation, as well as what our futures look like, but there’s also another culprit when it comes to the dismantling of families. Even as family units were strengthened in the ’50s by the secure employment of working fathers, stay-at-home moms, and increased consumer spending – as well as closely-held values like the sanctity of the family and more participation in organized religion – those units began to unravel with the arrival of the sexual revolution and countercultural narratives as well as government intervention in societal structures, like the creation and promotion of welfare.

We have never lived in a more sexually liberated society than we do now, yet individuals of every age are having less sex than we used to, as compared to 30 years ago. Even with an abundance of dating apps, birth control on demand, the industrialization of abortion as well as the commercialization and devaluing of sex, Americans have fewer partners and even those who do have sex less often. It’s been proven that frequency and enjoyment of sex as a society points to overall satisfaction and happiness – meaning if we put two and two together, our society is neither truly sexually fulfilled nor happy and satisfied overall. 

Americans have fewer partners and even those who do have sex less often. 

There’s also a factor to consider called “the marriage advantage,” wherein married individuals have more satisfying (and more frequent) sex, and are at lower risks for serious health concerns as they age like cancer and heart attacks. Yet we already know that the marriage rate has been declining for some time, meaning that advantage is being enjoyed by fewer people than ever before.

Single Parent Households Are on the Rise

When we discuss the most obvious negative effect of single-parent households – absent fatherhood and its proven consequences, like rising instances of poverty and crime – logic dictates that feminism is indeed the obvious culprit. When women as a collective and the third-wave feminist narrative mandate that men are expendable and not truly essential to the functions of a family or a society (which couldn’t be further from the truth), we have the only evident repercussions of that kind of rhetoric, stirred and promoted ad nauseam for decades: the abandonment of mothers, the absence of fathers in households, and subsequently, a decaying family unit. 

Journalist Mona Charen accurately surmises, “Fathers are crucial to the healthy development of children, particularly sons. If there is one great wrong feminism must be held to account for, it is the devaluation of men’s role in the family. In their quest for self-actualization, the second-wave feminists scorned men and fathers, insisting that women were fine on their own.”

The Nuclear Family in the 21st Century

In an age where every fundamental aspect of society is labeled as either right or left, woke or traditional, progressive or obsolete, we inevitably come to pseudo-intellectuals and academics attacking the family structure, or more specifically, the nuclear family.

For many, the nuclear family is outdated and has no place in the 21st century. Instead, they’d replace what they consider to be white, heteronormative models in favor of more diverse constructions, or promote a false equivalency of single-parent households as being more successful and empowered when compared to a two-parent structure. Therein lies the rub many have with the nuclear family; activists consider it too white, too religious, too straight, too traditional.

That kind of reasoning would dictate that black families in the 20th century were worse off as white families were better off, but they weren’t. In fact, they flourished and were even outdoing white families in economic growth and had low rates of unemployment. Now, black single motherhood has skyrocketed to 72%, and white single motherhood is at 35%. The U.S. has the highest number of single-parent households in the world.

The U.S. has the highest number of single-parent households in the world.

Comparing the family structures of today with those of the past is not an act of fruitlessness or misplaced, inappropriate nostalgia. It’s an exercise in recognizing how too often the societal structures that have claimed to help us have more often than not harmed us, specifically our families and our children. There is a place for the nuclear family within this century, and it’s evident that it would benefit everyone, not just a select few.

Closing Thoughts

When our families suffer, everything around them suffers as a consequence. One only has to examine the rates of abuse, neglect, poverty, crime and imprisonment, and substance abuse to realize that failing our children directly correlates to almost every other societal failure as well. 

Children do not need two parents in their households because of systemic racism or because a conservative or religious right says so. Two parent households benefit not only everyone within the family, but those within their communities as well. The downfall of the nuclear family, which we’re now staring directly in the face, is not a victory to be celebrated in the name of progress but a necessity to be rebuilt.