Each year for the past 30 years, the answer for American kids has been a little bit worse. Divorce rates rose, marriage rates dropped, unwed childbearing soared, until on any given evening, the best estimates were that 40 percent of American kids went to sleep in a home without their dad.
So consistent and powerful were these trends that many well-meaning family scholars declared that they were, as distinguished poverty researcher David Ellwood wrote in the late '80s, "largely unstoppable."
Then suddenly, in the late '90s, something seemed to have changed.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a report by Allen Dupree and Wendell Primus, which showed that since 1995 the proportion of children living with a single mother had dropped by 8 percent. A study by the Urban Institute found that between 1997 and 1999, the proportion of African-American children living in married-couple families (including stepfamilies) increased from 34.9 percent to 38.9 percent, an astonishing and unexpected jump in just a two-year period. A Child Trends study authored by Sharon Vandivere and colleagues reported that between 1997 and 1999, the proportion of children living in single-parent families (including single-father and cohabiting families) dropped from 27 percent to 25 percent.
What happened? In the mid-'90s, three things happened: The Democratic Party threw in the towel on the Murphy Brown debate, with President and Mrs. Clinton both reiterating that on average, children do better when parents stay married.
At the same time, family scholars began to step up warnings that this represented not just folk wisdom, but the consensus of social science research. In 1995, for example, a prominent group of social scientists, the Council on Families, released a report to the nation warning about the risks of divorce and nonmarriage to children's well-being.
And of course, in 1996 Congress passed landmark welfare reform legislation. In the mid-'90s, we began to change our minds, and then our laws, about marriage.
But as encouraging as all these recent studies are, they still don't tell us for sure what we all really want to know. Yes, fewer kids are living with solo moms, but more kids are living with single dads, with cohabiting moms, and (saddest of all) in no-parent families. Taking into account all of these complex trends, are American families headed in the right direction? Are American children today more or less likely to live with their own two married (biological or adoptive) parents?
Nor did any of these three important recent studies compile and release this information. But at the request of David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values, Child Trends' Sharon Vandivere kindly agreed to run some separate, unpublished analyses to find out. And here is the answer.
Between 1997 and 1999, the proportion of children living with their own two (biological or adoptive) married parents ticked up a notch, from 60.26 percent of American children to 60.74 percent. This difference is within the statistical margin of error. It is too soon to say that on the home front, things are getting better. But it is not too soon to say that for the very first time in two generations, the negative family disintegration trends that scholars once pronounced unstoppable have suddenly stopped getting worse.
Which is good news indeed. It means for the first time, we can begin to focus good old-fashioned American know-how on the other, more optimistic side of the ledger: how to make things better.