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The Traditional American Family Has Been Outsourced

• September 11, 2013 • 5:10 PM

A pair of wedding rings. (PHOTO: JEFF BELMONTE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

If you’re looking for a two-parent, man-and-wife, never-divorced kind of family, head to one of those citizenship ceremonies.

If you want to find traditional American family values—a man and a woman officially married to one of their “own kind,” no plans for divorce, an older dad who is the breadwinner, a stay-at-home mom—the best place to look is … in immigrant families.

That’s one of several themes running through a new report, “Divergent Paths of American Families,” compiled by Zhenchao Qian, a sociologist at The Ohio State University. Qian began work on the US2010 research project looking to see if a “quieting” of change in family dynamics, first noticed in 1990s, had continued into the new century and through the turmoil of the Great Recession.

Depending on where you looked, family life in the U.S. had stabilized. And depending on where you looked, change was accelerating. The typical family had become, well, atypical.

“The state of American families has become increasingly polarized,” a release on the study quoted Qian. “Race and ethnicity, education, economics, and immigration status are increasingly linked to how well families fare.”

One of the most salient divergences lay between immigrants and the native-born, and what quieting could be found could often be attributed to immigrants. By 2010, the end point of Qian’s decade-long study period, immigrants made up 13 percent of the U.S. population. Those immigrants brought the customs of their various homelands with them, weird practices like getting married regardless of their income and staying married through thick and thin. (It’s true in Britain, too.)

Here are some other ways in which immigrants differ:

• At every age, they married at a higher level than U.S. natives, regardless of ethnic similarity. Asian immigrants, for example, were twice as like to ever marry as U.S.-born Asians.
• Immigrant women marry at a much younger age than do immigrant men. Hence, among those in the mid to late 20s, 62 percent of women were married but only 43 percent of men.
• Immigrant man and wife were more likely to be ethnically or racially the same compared to the U.S. average.

And because they stay hitched, immigrants don’t ride the “marriage-go-round” Qian described elsewhere in his 44-page report. “The explanation is straightforward,” he wrote. “Immigrants do not divorce as much as natives, and those who divorce are less likely to remarry.” One caveat: because they are younger and have been married relatively recently, much of the immigrant population may not have been married long enough to gear up for American-style divorce.

In 2010, some 30 percent of immigrant children lived in homes with a working father and a stay-at-home mother, nine percentage points higher than natives (and up five percentage points from 2000). And while only 18 percent live in less-traditional families such as single parent, co-habitation, or with grandparents (compared to 30 percent for natives), they did have a higher percentage of living with siblings, with one married parent, and with parents neither of whom worked.

And these kids’ parents were more likely to be among the working poor than native families, especially where the mother doesn’t having a paying job. Nonetheless, the percent in poverty actually fell during the recession, which Qian speculates could be due to slowing immigration and families returning to their homelands.

But assimilation, he says, will affect immigrant families who stayed. “It is likely that the path toward traditional families occurs only among immigrants and the immigration effect is not long lasting.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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