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More Than a Century of Tracking our Children

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Much of what we can observe today about who children live with is a function of how the American family has changed over time.

Statistics from the Census Bureau are invaluable for helping us understand how children’s living arrangements have evolved. Of particular interest is what we can observe today compared with what we saw in the late 19th century, giving us a timeline of 100-plus years.

From generation to generation, we see small but important changes. In 1880, the proportion of children who lived without a parent was 6 percent. By 1970, that had dropped to just 3 percent. Notably, those who lived with their mother, with no father present, went up over the same period, from 8 percent to 11 percent.

Perhaps of even greater interest, and certainly more current to our own reference point, is the shift we see that took place between 1970 and 1990. In that span of 20 years, the proportion of children living with their mother but without their father doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent.

This time span also corresponds to sharp increases in births to unmarried women, from 11 percent of all births in 1970 to 28 percent in 1990, according to birth data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Additionally, the percent of children living with two parents declined from 85 percent in 1970 to 73 percent in 1990.

Since 1990, children’s living arrangements have changed at much slower rates. The proportion of children living with two parents declined less between 1991 and 2009 (4 percentage points) than it had between 1970 and 1990 (12 percentage points).

And children living with their mother without their father present increased 3 percentage points from 1991 to 2009, compared with an 11 percentage point increase between 1970 and 1990.

These figures come from the report Living Arrangements of Children: 2009, which examines the diversity of situations in which children live in the United States, describing extended family households with relatives and nonrelatives.

Slow or fast, the family situation in which children live continues to change. Having historical data allows us to venture outside of our current vantage point and view the accumulation of change over time. It gives us the context to better understand who we are by showing us where we came from.

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