John Leo
Newsweek's cover story for May 28 announced that marriage and the nuclear family are on their deathbed ("The New Single Mom -- Why the Traditional Family Is Fading Fast"). In the next week or two, there's a good chance that Time magazine will run a cover story saying almost the opposite, something like "I Do, I Do -- Are Marriage and the Nuclear Family Making a Comeback?"

This process is known as journalism. Newsweek's story was triggered by a misleading Census Bureau statistic (two-parent families now account for only a quarter of American households). Newsweek's interpretation was the dominant one in the news media. No surprise. The newsroom has been tapping out death-of-marriage stories for 25 years. They are a hardy staple of the journalistic world. Almost every one starts with the mandatory derisive mention of either Ozzie and Harriet or the Beaver's TV parents, June and Ward Cleaver. This time out Newsweek gave the nod to June and Ward.

Last week this traditional "fading fast" version of the two-parent family took a major hit. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed 1995 to 2000 data and concluded that the move away from marriage "really seems to have come to a halt," in the words of Wendell Primus, a poverty expert at the center. The proportion of children under 18 living with a single mother declined by 8 percent in five years, according to a report written by Primus and Allen Dupree. Working with an early copy of the report, Jonathan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "some of the newest evidence suggests that the tidal flow away from two-parent families peaked years ago and may even be starting to change course."

The change is strongest among blacks. The proportion of black children living with two parents rose 11.8 percent, up from 34.8 to 38.9 percent. That's an impressive improvement in only five years. (Let's hear some applause for the black organizations that worked hard on this, particularly the black fathers' groups.) Latino families followed the same trend, up from 64.2 percent to 66.2. The proportion of white children in two-parent families remained steady -- no rise, but the long downhill slide is apparently over.

Nobody knows for sure what's going on. The economic boom played a role, opening up more jobs and reducing stress on couples who wanted to stay together. But a lot of credit probably should go to welfare reform. The more optimistic reformers hoped that the welfare changes would improve chances that children would grow up with two parents. Apparently that's starting to happen.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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