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Chapter 12: Marriage and Families

12.4 Changes and Issues Affecting American Families

American families have undergone many changes since the 1950s. Scholars, politicians, and the public have strong and often conflicting views on the reasons for these changes and on their consequences. We now look at some of the most important changes and issues affecting U.S. families.


Some people who are not currently married nonetheless or live together with someone in a romantic relationship. Living together before or in lieu of marriage is a growing option for many couples. In 2018, 15 percent of young adults ages 25-34 lived with an unmarried partner, up from 12 percent in 2008 (Gurrentz, 2018). This increase in cohabitation is likely due to the decrease in social stigma pertaining to the practice. Sixty-nine percent of surveyed Americans believe it is acceptable for adults to live together if they are not currently married or do not plan to get married, while 16% say it is acceptable only if they plan to get married (Horowitz, et. al., 2019).

Cohabitating couples may choose to live together in an effort to spend more time together or to save money on living costs. Many couples view cohabitation as a “trial run” for marriage. Sixty-six percent of married couples who cohabited but were not engaged saw cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while 44% of cohabiting adults who are not yet engaged or married see moving in with their partner as a step toward marriage (Horowitz, et. al., 2019).

While couples may use this time to “work out the kinks” of a relationship before they wed, the most recent research has found that cohabitation has little effect on the success of a marriage. In fact, those who do not cohabitate before marriage have slightly better rates of remaining married for more than ten years (Jayson 2010). Cohabitation may contribute to the increase in the number of men and women who delay marriage. In 2020, the median age for first marriage is the highest it has ever been since the U.S. Census kept records—at age 28.1 for women and age 30.5 for men (U.S. Census, 2021; Conerly, et. al., 2021).

Recent work has begun to compare the psychological well-being of cohabiting and married adults and also the behavior of children whose biological parent or parents are cohabiting rather than married (Apel & Kaukinen, 2008; Brown, 2005). On average, married adults are happier and otherwise have greater psychological well-being than cohabiting adults, while the latter, in turn, fare better psychologically than adults not living with anyone. Research has not yet clarified the reasons for these differences, but it seems that people with the greatest psychological and economic well-being are most likely to marry. If this is true, it is not the state of being married per se that accounts for the difference in well-being between married and cohabiting couples, but rather the extent of well-being that affects decisions to marry or not marry. Another difference between cohabitation and marriage concerns relationship violence. Among young adults (aged 18–28), this type of violence is more common among cohabiting couples than among married or dating couples. The reasons for this difference remain unknown but may again reflect differences in the types of people who choose to cohabit (Brown & Bulanda, 2008).

The children of cohabiting parents tend to exhibit lower well-being of various types than those of married parents: they are more likely to engage in delinquency and other antisocial behavior, and they have lower academic performance and worse emotional adjustment. The reasons for these differences remain to be clarified but may again stem from the types of people who choose to cohabit rather than marry.

Divorce and Single-Parent Households

The U.S. divorce rate has risen since the early 1900s, with several peaks and valleys, and is currently one of the highest in the industrial world. It rose sharply during the Great Depression and World War II, probably because of the economic distress of the former and the family disruption caused by the latter and fell sharply after the war as the economy thrived and as marriage and family were proclaimed as patriotic ideals. It dropped a bit more during the 1950s before rising sharply in the 1970s (Cherlin, 2009). The divorce rate has declined steadily since 1980 (see Figure 12.9 “Number of Divorces per 1,000 in the Population, 1900-2020”). In 2020, the divorce rate dropped to the lowest it has been in about 60 years.

Figure 12.9 Number of Divorces per 1,000 in the population, 1900-2020

Graph showing Number of Divorces per 1,000 in the population, 1900-2020, with rates lowest in 1900 at .7, increasing gradually to 2.6 in 1950, and climbing rapidly from 1960 to 1980, where rates peaked at 5.2 per 1,000 in the population. Rates have dropped back down since then, to 2.7 in 2020.

Source: Data from Infoplease. Retrieved from https://www.infoplease.com/us/marital-status/marriages-and-divorces-1900-2012. Data from “National Center for Health Statistics.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17 Mar. 2017. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htmSource: CDC/NCHS National Vital Statistics System.18 November 2021 Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/marriage-divorce.htm.

Reasons for Divorce

We cannot be certain about why the divorce rate rose so much during the 1960s and 1970s, but we can rule out two oft-cited causes. First, there is little reason to believe that marriages became any less happy during this period. We do not have good data to compare marriages then and now, but the best guess is that marital satisfaction did not decline after the 1950s ended. What did change was that people after the 1950s became more willing to seek divorces in marriages that were already unhappy.

Sometimes the contemporary women’s movement is blamed for the increase in the divorce rate by making women think marriage is an oppressive institution. The women’s movement emerged in the late 1960s and was capturing headlines by the early 1970s. Although the divorce rate obviously rose after that time, it also started rising several years before the women’s movement emerged. If the divorce rate began rising before the women’s movement started, it is illogical to blame the women’s movement. Instead, other structural and cultural forces must have been at work, just as they were at other times in the last century, as just noted, when the divorce rate rose and fell.

Why, then, did divorce increase during the 1960s and 1970s? One reason is the increasing economic independence of women. As women entered the labor force in the 1960s and 1970s, they became more economically independent of their spouses. When women in unhappy marriages do become more economically independent, they are more able to afford to get divorced than when they have to rely entirely on their spouses’ earnings (Hiedemann, Suhomlinova, & O’Rand, 1998). When both spouses work outside the home, moreover, it is more difficult to juggle the many demands of family life, especially childcare, and family life can be more stressful. Such stress can reduce marital happiness and make divorce more likely. Spouses may also have less time for each other when both are working outside the home, making it more difficult to deal with problems they may be having.

It is also true that disapproval of divorce has declined since the 1950s, even if negative views of it still remain (Cherlin, 2009). Not too long ago, divorce was considered a deviant act; now it is considered a normal if unfortunate part of life. We no longer say a bad marriage should continue for the sake of the children. When New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller ran for president in the early 1960s, the fact that he had been divorced hurt his popularity, but when California Governor Ronald Reagan ran for president less than two decades later, the fact that he had been divorced was hardly noted. But is the growing acceptability of divorce a cause of the rising divorce rate, or is it the result of the rising divorce rate? Or is it both a cause and result? This important causal order question is difficult to resolve.

Another reason divorce rose during the 1960s and 1970s may be that divorces became easier to obtain legally. In the past, most states required couples to prove that one or both had committed actions such as mental cruelty, adultery, or other such behaviors in order to get divorced. Today almost all states have no-fault divorce laws that allow a couple to divorce if they say their marriage has failed from irreconcilable differences. Because divorce has become easier and less expensive to obtain, more divorces occur. But are no-fault divorce laws a cause or result of the post-1950s rise in the divorce rate? The divorce rate increase preceded the establishment of most states’ no-fault laws, but it is probably also true that the laws helped make additional divorces more possible. Thus, no-fault divorce laws are probably one reason for the rising divorce rate after the 1950s, but only one reason (Kneip & Bauer, 2009).

We have just looked at possible reasons for divorce rate trends, but we can also examine the reasons why certain marriages are more or less likely to end in divorce within a given time period. Although, as noted earlier, a high percentage of all new marriages will probably end in divorce, it is also true that some marriages are more likely to end than others. Family scholars identify several correlates of divorce (Clarke-Stewart & Brentano, 2006; Wilcox, 2009). An important one is age at marriage: teenagers who get married are much more likely to get divorced than people who marry well into their 20s or beyond, partly because they have financial difficulties and are not yet emotionally mature. A second correlate of divorce is social class: people who are poor at the time of their marriage are more likely to get divorced than people who begin their marriages in economic comfort, as the stress of poverty causes stress in marriage. Divorce is thus another negative life chance of people at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

Effects of Divorce and Single-Parent Households

Much research exists on the effects of divorce on spouses and their children, and scholars do not always agree on what these effects are. One thing is clear: divorce plunges many women into poverty or near-poverty (Gadalla, 2008). Many have been working only part time or not at all outside the home, and divorce takes away their spouse’s economic support. Even women working full-time often have trouble making ends meet, because, as we saw in earlier chapters, so many are in low-paying jobs. One-parent families headed by a woman for any reason are much poorer ($49,214 median annual income in 2020) than those headed by a man ($67,304 median annual income in 2020). Meanwhile, that same year, the median income of married-couple families was much higher ($101,517). In 2020, the poverty rate for single-parent families headed by women was 23.4%, compared to 11.4% for single-parent families headed by men (Shrider, et. al., 2021).

Although the economic consequences of divorce seem clear, what are the psychological consequences for husbands, wives, and their children? Are they better off if a divorce occurs, worse off, or about the same? The research evidence is very conflicting. Many studies find that divorced spouses are, on average, less happy and have poorer mental health after their divorce, but some studies find that happiness and mental health often improve after divorce (Williams, 2003; Waite, Luo, & Lewin, 2009). The post-divorce time period that is studied may affect what results are found: for some people psychological well-being may decline in the immediate aftermath of a divorce, given how difficult the divorce process often is, but rise over the next few years. The contentiousness of the marriage may also matter. Some marriages ending in divorce have been filled with hostility, conflict, and sometimes violence, while other marriages ending in divorce have not been very contentious at all, even if they have failed. Individuals seem to fare better psychologically after ending a very contentious marriage but fare worse after ending a less contentious marriage (Amato & Hohmann-Marriott, 2007).

What about the children? Parents used to stay together “for the sake of the children,” thinking that divorce would cause their children more harm than good. Studies of this issue generally find that children in divorced families are indeed more likely, on average, to do worse in school, to use drugs and alcohol and suffer other behavioral problems, and to experience emotional distress and other psychological problems (Sun & Li, 2009; Amato & Cheadle, 2008). However, it is sometimes difficult in these studies to determine whether the effects on children stem from the divorce itself or, instead, from the parental conflict that led to the divorce. This problem raises the possibility that children may fare better if their parents end a troubled marriage than if their parents stay married. The evidence on this issue generally mirrors the evidence for spouses just cited: children generally fare better if their parents end a highly contentious marriage, but they fare worse if their parents end a marriage that has not been highly contentious (Booth & Amato, 2001; Hull, Meier, & Ortyl, 2010).


Think Like a Sociologist

It is often cited that half of all marriages end in divorce. This statistic has made many people cynical when it comes to marriage, but it is misleading. Let’s take a closer look at the data.

Using National Center for Health Statistics data from 2003 that show a marriage rate of 7.5 (per 1000 people) and a divorce rate of 3.8, it would appear that exactly one half of all marriages failed (Hurley 2005). This reasoning is deceptive, however, because instead of tracing actual marriages to see their longevity (or lack thereof), this compares what are unrelated statistics: that is, the number of marriages in a given year does not have a direct correlation to the divorces occurring that same year. Research published in the New York Times took a different approach—determining how many people had ever been married, and of those, how many later divorced. The result? According to this analysis, U.S. divorce rates have only gone as high as 41 percent (Hurley 2005). Another way to calculate divorce rates would be through a cohort study. For instance, we could determine the percentage of marriages that are intact after, say, five or seven years, compared to marriages that have ended in divorce after five or seven years. Sociological researchers must remain aware of research methods and how statistical results are applied. As illustrated, different methodologies and different interpretations can lead to contradictory, and even misleading, results (Conerly, et. al, 2021).

Today, divorce is a far more accepted practice than it was in the past. There isn’t nearly as much stigma attached to it, today, as there was in the 1950s. Despite that, after a huge peak in the 1970s, the divorce rate is at its lowest since the 1960s (although it’s still relatively high in comparison to other high-income nations.) Some sociologists suggest that our increasingly favorable attitudes toward divorce have been driving the increases in ages at first marriage and the number of people who are choosing to cohabit rather than marry. These are important trends because marriage is considered to be a cornerstone for our societal stability.

Explain how our attitudes about divorce might affect our attitudes about marriage?

Which methodological approach do you think offers a better understanding of divorce in our society?


Effects of Single-Parent Households

image of American Indian father and daughter

Research findings show that even if children don’t live with their fathers, they fare better in many ways if they have a close relationship with their father. American Indian Father – Rennet Stowe – Creative Commons – Flickr

Recall from section 12.3 that most children who live with one parent, live with their mothers. One factor that affects how children in these situations fare is the closeness of the child-father relationship. Whether or not children live with their fathers, they fare better in many respects when they have an emotionally close relationship with their fathers. This type of relationship is certainly more possible when they live with their fathers, and this is one reason that children who live with both their parents fare better on average than children who live only with their mother. However, some children who do live with their fathers are less close to them than some children who live apart from their fathers.

Research by sociologist Alan Booth and colleagues (Booth, Scott, & King, 2010) found that the former children fare worse than the latter children. As Booth et al. (2010, p. 600) summarize this result, “We find that adolescents who are close to their nonresident fathers report higher self-esteem, less delinquency, and fewer depressive symptoms than adolescents who live with a father with whom they are not close. It appears that adolescents benefit more from a close bond to a nonresident father than a weak bond to a resident father.” To the extent this is true, they add, “youth are not always better off in two-parent families.” In fact, children who are not close to a father with whom they live have lower self-esteem than children who are not close to a father with whom they do not live. Overall, though, children fare best when they live with fathers with whom they have a close relationship: “It does not appear that strong affection alone can overcome the problems associated with father absence from the child’s primary residence” (Social Problems: Continuity and Change, 2016).


What Do You Think?

image of father holding baby in a baby carrier


In Sweden, a , stay-at-home fathers are an accepted part of the social landscape. A government policy provides subsidized time off work—480 days for families with newborns—with the option of the paid leave being shared between mothers and fathers. As one stay-at-home dad says, being home to take care of his infant son “is a real fatherly thing to do. I think that’s very masculine” (Associated Press 2011). Close to 90 percent of Swedish fathers use their paternity leave; on average they take seven weeks per birth (The Economist, 2014; Conerly, et. al., 2021).

By contrast, in the United States under the Family Medical Leave Act, legal parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year and receive job protection.

How do U.S. policies—and our society’s expected gender roles—compare?

How will Swedish children raised this way be socialized to parental gender norms and how might that be different from parental gender norms in the United States?


Effects of Poverty on Families

The statistics on children and poverty are discouraging (DeNavas-Walt, Proctor, & Smith, 2009). In 2019, 17% of children lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold, another 21% lived in families with incomes near the federal poverty level (both near and below the poverty line is considered low income) and 62% of children lived in households experiencing at least twice poverty (double the poverty line) (Koball, Moore and Hernandez 2021). Family structure plays a significant role in child poverty, with 54% of children in low-income families residing with a single parent compared to the 20% of children in above low income families who live with a single parent.

As with many things, race and ethnicity play an important role: African American, Latinx and American Indian children are more than two times as likely as non-Latinx white children to live in poverty (see Figure 12.10 “Percentage of Children Below Poverty Level by Race-Ethnicity, 2019”).

Figure 12.10 Percentage of Children Below Poverty Level by Race-Ethnicity, 2019

Bar chart showing Percentage of Children Below Poverty Level by Race-Ethnicity, 2019. Chart shows low income, poor and deep poverty, with rates in that order as follows: white, 26, 10 and 4%; Black, 58, 30 and 14%; Latinx, 53, 23 and 10%; Asian, 25, 9 and 3%; American Indian 55, 31 and 15%; and other, 36, 16 and 7%.

Low Income = less than twice Federal Poverty Line; Poor = below Federal Poverty Line; Deep Poverty = below 50% of Federal Poverty Line

Source: Koball, H., Moore, A, & Hernandez, J. (2021). Basic facts about low-income children: Children under 9 years, 2019. New York: National Center for Children in Poverty, Bank Street College of Education. https://www.nccp.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NCCP_FactSheets_All-Kids_FINAL-2.pdf.

Much research finds that poor children are at increased risk for behavioral, psychological, and health problems not only during childhood and adolescence but also well into their adult years (Wagmiller & Adelman, 2009). In a type of vicious cycle, children growing up in poor households are at greater risk of continuing to live in poverty after they reach adulthood.

Childhood poverty is higher in the United States than in any other postindustrial democracy, and poor children in the United States fare worse than their counterparts in other postindustrial democracies (Jäntti, 2009). A major reason for this is that the United States lacks the large, national programs other postindustrial democracies have both for preventing poverty and for helping children and adults already living in poverty. These programs include housing allowances, free or subsidized day care and preschool programs and adequate healthcare. The experience of other postindustrial democracies indicates that the number of U.S. poor children and the problems they face are much higher than they need to be (Waldfogel, 2009).

Working Mothers and Day Care

As noted earlier, women are now much more likely to be working outside the home than a few decades ago. This is true for both married and unmarried women and also for women with and without children. As women have entered the labor force, the question of who takes care of the children has prompted much debate and controversy. Many observers have said that young children suffer if they do not have a parent, implicitly their mother, taking care of them full time until they start school and being there every day when they get home from school (Morse, 2001). What does research say about how young children fare if their mothers work?

image of three girls, around the age of 4, all smiling.

Children in daycare exhibit better cognitive skills than stay-at-home children but are also slightly more likely to engage in aggressive behavior that is within the normal range of children’s behavior. Di LewisPexels

Recent research has studied children, both those who stayed at home and those who entered day care, over time starting with infancy, with some of the most notable studies examining data from a large, $200 million study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a branch of the National Institutes of Health (Rabin, 2008). These studies have found that day-care children exhibit better cognitive skills (reading and arithmetic) than stay-at-home children but are also slightly more likely to engage in aggressive behavior that is well within the normal range of children’s behavior. This research has also yielded two other conclusions. First, the quality of parenting and other factors such as a parent’s education and income matter much more for children’s cognitive and social development than whether or not they are in day care. Second, to the extent that daycare is beneficial for children, it is high-quality day care that is beneficial, as low-quality daycare can be harmful.

This latter conclusion is an important finding because many day-care settings in the United States are not high quality. Unfortunately, many parents who use day care cannot afford high-quality care, which can cost hundreds of dollars per month. This problem reflects the fact that the United States lags far behind other postindustrial democracies in providing subsidies for day care, as noted earlier. Because working women are certainly here to stay and because high-quality day care seems at least as good for children as full-time care by a parent, it is essential that the United States make good daycare available and affordable.


Think Like a Sociologist

The Head Start program, launched in 1965, provides early childhood education, health and nutrition support and other services to children, birth to age five, who are from low-income, homeless and foster families. Research has found that children who participate in Head Start and other model preschool programs, compared to low-income children who don’t attend preschool, are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college and complete their degrees, and have higher self-esteem and greater self-control (Schanzenback and Bauer, 2016).

What factors associated with preschool attendance result in such profound outcomes for low-income children later in their lives?


Marriage and Well-Being

Is marriage good for people? This is the flip side of the question addressed earlier on whether divorce is bad for people. Are people better off if they get married in the first place? Or are they better off if they stay single?

In 1972, sociologist Jessie Bernard (1972) famously said that every marriage includes a “her marriage” and a “his marriage.” By this she meant that husbands and wives view and define their marriages differently. When spouses from the same marriage are interviewed, they disagree on such things as how often they should have sex, how often they actually do have sex, and who does various household tasks. Citing various studies, she said that marriage is better for men than for women. Married women, she said, have poorer mental health and other aspects of psychological well-being than unmarried women, while married men have better psychological well-being than unmarried men. In short, marriage was good for men but bad for women.

Critics later said that Bernard misinterpreted her data on women and that married women are also better off than unmarried women (Glenn, 1997). Contemporary research generally finds that marriage does benefit both sexes: married people, women and men alike, are generally happier than unmarried people (whether never married, divorced, or widowed), score better on other measures of psychological well-being, are physically healthier, have better sex lives, and have lower death rates (Williams, 2003; Waite, Luo, & Lewin, 2009). There is even evidence that marriage helps keep men from committing crime (Laub, 2004). Marriage has these benefits for several reasons, including the emotional and practical support spouses give each other, their greater financial resources compared to those of unmarried people, and the sense of obligation that spouses have toward each other.

image of heterosexual smiling elderly couple, him with is arm around her.

Married people are generally happier than unmarried people and score higher on other measures of psychological well-being. Tristan Le Pexels

Three issues qualify the general conclusion that marriage is beneficial. First, it would be more accurate to say that good marriages are beneficial, because bad marriages certainly are not (Frech & Williams, 2007). Second, although marriage is generally beneficial, its benefits seem greater for older adults than for younger adults, for whites than for African Americans, and for individuals who were psychologically depressed before marriage than for those who were not depressed (Frech & Williams, 2007). Third, psychologically happy and healthy people may be the ones who get married in the first place and are less apt to get divorced once they do marry. If so, then marriage does not promote psychological well-being; rather, psychological well-being promotes marriage. Research testing this selectivity hypothesis finds that both processes occur; psychologically healthy people are more apt to get and stay married, but marriage also promotes psychological well-being.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

As the text points out, marriage seems to promote personal happiness and other aspects of psychological well-being. One reason this happens is undoubtedly the happiness that many spouses find in the marriage itself. Not surprisingly, there is a large body of research on why some marriages are happier (or unhappier) than other marriages (Kaufman & Taniguchi, 2006). Also not surprisingly, some of the factors discussed elsewhere in the text that promote the likelihood of divorce, such as marrying at a young age and experiencing financial strain, also contribute to marital unhappiness. When spouses have health problems, marital happiness also tends to be lower.

An additional factor that may influence heterosexual marital happiness is gender ideology. A spouse who holds traditional ideology believes that the man is the ruler of the household, and that the woman’s primary role is to be a homemaker and caretaker of children. A spouse who holds an egalitarian (or nontraditional) ideology believes that a woman’s place is not necessarily in the home and that both spouses should share housework, childcare, and other responsibilities. Some scholars speculate that the rise in divorce during the 1960s and 1970s was partly due to a rise in egalitarian ideology among women, which conflicted with their husbands’ traditional ideology. Supporting this speculation, some studies summarized by sociologists Gayle Kaufman and Hiromi Taniguchi (2006) find that wives with traditional attitudes are happier in their marriages than wives with egalitarian attitudes. At the same time, studies have also found that husbands with egalitarian attitudes are happier in their marriages than husbands with traditional attitudes.

Thus, gender ideology may have opposite effects by gender on heterosexual marital happiness: wives are happier in their marriages when they hold traditional attitudes, while husbands are happier when they hold egalitarian attitudes. This “dual” result is perhaps not very surprising. As wives moved increasingly into the labor force during the past few decades but still found themselves having the primary responsibility for housework and childcare, it makes sense to think that those with traditional attitudes would be happier with this situation and those with egalitarian attitudes would be less happy. By the same token, it makes sense to think that husbands with egalitarian attitudes would be happier with this situation and husbands with traditional attitudes less happy.

If we can assume that men’s gender ideology will continue to become more egalitarian as traditional gender roles decline over time, it makes sense to think that their marital happiness will increase. Second, educational campaigns and other efforts that promote egalitarian attitudes among men should increase their marital happiness and thus reduce their desire to divorce. By pointing to the importance of expanding men’s egalitarian attitudes for marital happiness, the work by sociologists Kaufman and Taniguchi has helped make a difference.

After reading this passage, use one of the sociological perspectives to explain how egalitarian marriages may influence marital happiness.

Aside from contributing to marital happiness, how else would you suppose egalitarian attitudes might impact divorce rates?


Same-Sex Couples and Marriages

One of the most controversial contemporary issues concerning families has been that of marriage equality for Americans who are gay or lesbian. In July 2010, only five states permitted same-sex marriage—Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Vermont—along with Washington, DC. Several other states recognized civil unions or provided some legal benefits to same-sex couples, but civil union status did not afford couples the full range of rights and privileges that married couples enjoyed. At that time, thirty-two states had laws or constitutional amendments that banned same-sex marriage. On June 26, 2015, in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges civil rights case, the United States Supreme Court extended marriage rights to gay and lesbian people across all fifty states. In other words, marriage equality for gay and lesbian people became law of the land in the U.S.  Internationally, same-sex marriage is legal in numerous countries, including Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and Uruguay — and the list is growing.

image of gay couple in tuxedos with their arms around each other, holding two signs reading, "married with pride," and "John and Stuart, 28 years"

Many LGBTQ+ couples waited years, if not decades, to legally marry. Marriage equality in the U.S. was finally achieved in 2015, when the Supreme Court found in the Obergefell v. Hodges case that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed by both the Due Process Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Elvert Barnes – Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) – Flickr

The number of same-sex couples has grown significantly in the past decade. The U.S. Census Bureau reported 594,000 same-sex couple households in the United States, a 50 percent increase from 2000. This increase is a result of more coupling, the growing social acceptance of LGBTQ people, and a subsequent increase in people’s willingness to share more about their identity. Nationally, same-sex couple households make up 1.5 percent of the total partner-headed households in the United States (Walker and Taylor, 2021). When the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States, all federally mandated spousal rights and benefits began applying to same-sex married couples. These have impacts on Social Security and veterans benefits, family leave, and so on. For example, when same-sex marriage was not legal, an LGBTQ person couldn’t take the same type of family leave as an opposite sex spouse could if their partner became ill, and could even be prohibited from visiting their partner in the hospital.

In terms of demographics, same-sex couples are not very different from opposite-sex couples. Same-sex couple households have an average age of 52 and an average annual household income of about $107,000; opposite-sex couple households have an average age of 59 and an average household income of $97,000. Same-sex couples are less likely to have children under 18-years of age, with a rate of 18.5 percent compared to 44.5 percent of opposite-sex couples; note these include both married and unmarried couples (Walker and Taylor, 2021).

In an analysis of 81 parenting studies, sociologists found no quantifiable data to support the notion that opposite-sex parenting is any better than same-sex parenting. Children of lesbian couples, however, were shown to have slightly lower rates of behavioral problems and higher rates of self-esteem (Biblarz and Stacey, 2010). Prior to the nationwide legalization, studies also showed that the rate of suicide among high school students declined in states where same-sex marriage was legal. Suicide is the second-highest cause of death among high school students, and it is a tragic outcome for LGBTQ+ teenagers who feel unaccepted or vulnerable. The evidence indicates that the legalization of same-sex marriage had positive outcomes for the emotional and mental wellbeing of LGBTQ+ people (Johns Hopkins University, 2017; Conerly, et. al., 2021).

Test Yourself

Racial and Ethnic Diversity in Marriages and Families

Marriages and families in the United States exhibit a fair amount of racial and ethnic diversity, as we saw earlier in this chapter. Children are more likely to live with only one parent among Latinx, African American and American Indian families than among white and Asian American families. Moreover, African American, Latinx, and American Indian children and their families are especially likely to live in poverty. As a result, they are at much greater risk for the kinds of problems outlined earlier for children living in poverty.

Beyond these facts lie other racial and ethnic differences in family life (Taylor, 2002). Studies of Latinx and Asian American families find they have especially strong family bonds and loyalty. Extended families in both groups and among American Indians are common, and these extended families have proven a valuable shield against the problems all three groups face because of their race/ethnicity and poverty.


Think Like a Sociologist

graphic of boy shaking a piggy bank

Wikimedia Commons – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

To determine the poverty level, the U.S. government calculates how much money it takes for a person (or persons) to meet basic needs for survival (shelter, food, clothing, etc.). In order to qualify for help from the government, people first have to fall below the established poverty level. It gets calibrated every year to take inflation into account.

Below, you will find an exercise worksheet for a budgeting exercise. On the exercise worksheet, you will find a calculated weekly paycheck for earning $10 per hour – 40 hours per week – 52 weeks per year (before and after taxes). The average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in Lansing, MI in 2022 is $750/month. At the time of this publication, the federal minimum wage was $7.25/hour and the state of Michigan’s minimum wage had just gone up to $9.87/hour. Minimum wage in Michigan for tipped workers (like waiters/waitresses) had just gone up to $3.67/hour (although tips are expected to cover the differential).

Complete the minimum wage budgeting exercise below. After you’ve done the budgeting exercise, answer the following questions:

  • How did you do in terms of budgeting? Did you have money left over?
  • How much were you lacking? What are you willing to give up?
  • Did you realize that a person making $20,800/year (one person, no children) is over 1.5x of the poverty line?
  • Were you able to save any money?
  • How would your budget have changed if you had to support a child?

Monthly budget table, asking students to determine how to spend a monthly minimum wage budget of $1434. Housing costs are $750, leaving $684 for the following household expenses: food, utilities, transportation, clothing, telephone, internet, tuition, books, toiletries, entertainment, savings and other/unforeseen. Disperse your remaining budget (in realistic terms) across these categories. What does your total expenditure add up to? Did you stay within budget?


Section 12.4 References

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