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How and Why Is the American Family Changing?

BATON ROUGE -- America's family album has undergone a revamping over the past several decades. Ozzie and Harriet, at least, would be a bit surprised upon taking a gander at the newly revised edition. Where have the missing pages gone, and who's taken the lead in reorganizing the story of the American family? Louisiana State University researchers from various fields can offer insights about what is in store for this most basic unit of society as the 21st century presses onward.

According to 2000 Census figures released at the end of May, the American family is changing in dramatic ways. Some things to consider:

  • The number of families headed by single mothers has increased 25 percent since 1990, to more than 7.5 million households.
  • For most of the past decade, about a third of all babies were born to unmarried women, compared with 3.8 percent in 1940.
  • The number of single fathers has also increased; single fathers now head more than two million families.

What is the relationship between the family unit and other societal institutions?

LSU sociologist Michael Grimes researches how the family intersects other institutions of society such as the economy and educational and political systems. He seeks to understand how social inequalities based on class, race/ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation impact the structure and activities of the family. He is researching working-class families to examine the roles that men and women play in families and how the roles are impacted by each gender's participation in the larger society. He is also studying family violence, including child abuse and neglect.

"The family must always be viewed as interdependent with the larger society. Because of this interdependence, the structure of the family and its activities at a given point in time cannot be understood in isolation from the events that are occurring in the larger society at that point in time. For example, one only has to look at the tremendous impact that women's return to work, which began during the late 1960s and early 1970s, had on the structure and activities of the American family to realize the interdependence between the family and the remainder of society."

How have individual state laws on divorce contributed to rising divorce rates across America?

According to LSU political scientist James Garand, there has been a debate among scholars about the degree to which rising divorce rates during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were attributable to an increased permissiveness in state divorce laws. Garand and his wife, LSU human ecology professor Pam Monroe, have used data on divorce rates in every state and every year from 1990 to 1995 to determine whether state adoption of no-fault divorce laws increased state divorce rates. Garand and Monroe have determined that an increase in divorce rates can be directly attributed to adoption of no-fault divorce laws.

"In particular, we find that when states adopt no-fault divorce laws there is typically a sharp immediate increase in divorce rates, followed by a tapering off of the upward trend. Eventually divorce rates return to what they would have been had the no-fault laws not been adopted, but it does appear that pent-up demand for divorce is released when states adopt no-fault laws."

Does Mom really have a favorite? The effects of parental favoritism on a family unit?

LSU sociologist J. Jill Suitor has been studying family relationships for the past 20 years. She recently received a $1.2 million grant to study whether parents pick favorites among their adult children. Suitor's research is unique because until now, most studies on parental favoritism have focused on parents and young children. Suitor hopes the study will lead to determining which adult sibling in a family is most likely to take the lead in caring for an aging parent. She has conducted other studies as well, including one on family caregivers of elderly relatives with Alzheimer's disease and another focused on married mothers returning to school. She has also done research on gender issues, including regional differences in adolescent gender norms.

Is your family stressed out? How to cope when the end of wits is near

LSU professor of human ecology Betsy Garrison has focused much of her family research on stress and coping. She has also studied other aspects of family health, delayed parenthood and the quality of life of rural Louisiana families.

How have new marriage laws, such as the "covenant marriage," affected the American family?

The covenant marriage law, which allows couples to enter into a stronger marital contract than a standard state contract, is now effective in three states: Louisiana, Arizona and Arkansas. Louisiana's covenant marriage law was passed overwhelmingly by the Legislature and Gov. Mike Foster in May 1998. LSU sociologist Scott Feld has researched the covenant marriage as a social experiment and has written several papers on the topic, including "Covenant Marriage: Does Law Foster Personal Commitment?" and "The Evolution of American Divorce: Louisiana's Covenant Marriage." Feld's work- in-progress is a book tentatively titled "Promoting Morality By Choice: The Case of Covenant Marriage in Louisiana."

LSU law professor Katherine Spaht helped draft Louisiana's covenant marriage law and is an expert in family law. She has written extensively on the subject of covenant marriages and is a signatory of the 2000 Marriage Movement Statement. Spaht is also a member of the American Law Institute and its advisory committee on principles of the law of family dissolution. Since 1981, she has been the reporter of the Louisiana State Law Institute's married persons committee. Spaht has worked closely with the La. Legislature on issues such as the rights of illegitimate children, child support guidelines and the law of assisted conception.

"We have found that the covenant marriage law originated with Christian Rights activists. In particular, members of the old mainline Christian denominations, including Catholics, have not been choosing covenant marriages...Apart from the particular religious appeal, we have found that covenant-marriage couples are not much different from other marrying couples. They tend to be White and a little more educated than average, but no more or less likely to be first marriages than others. They do not seem to be highly pre-selected on characteristics that affect the durability of marriages."

How do ideals of family in America compare with those of other nations?

LSU sociologist Yoshinori Kamo has done extensive research on the family, focusing on a comparison between the United States and Japan. More specific areas of interest include division of household work, work and family, marital satisfaction, gender roles, living arrangements and aging.

---Louisiana State University

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