Families in a Diverse Culture

Families in a Diverse Culture

Darling, Carol Anderson

Providing an overview of American families today is a difficult task because of our diversity, not only in race and ethnicity, but also in our social, geographical, and cultural backgrounds. These varied family dimensions can influence perceptions and reactions to age, family composition, family characteristics, gender roles, family interests, health issues, economic conditions, education, and religion. In addition, over time families change in multifaceted ways. Individuals and families evolve developmentally, while at the same time, the family unit is transformed in terms of demographics, definition, and core issues. Moreover, living in a multiethnic society adds to the cultural complexity, creating a unique blend of families. Nevertheless, the family is the basic unit that is involved in the socialization, education, and nurturance of its members through the lifespan. Some believe that the family is in decline because it no longer performs some of the tasks entrusted to it, but the family system as a whole is enduring and resilient (Goode, 2005). At times, however, certain families may be considered vulnerable.

Changing Family Demographics

Although families still typify American households, they are less prominent than in past decades. In 1970, 81% of U.S. households were families; however, in 2000, families constituted 69% of households. In 2000, approximately 10% of the population lived alone, with some living in households in which persons were unrelated (5%), and almost 3% lived in group residences, such as nursing homes, college dormitories, military quarters, or prisons. Cohabiting couples, or persons who lived with unmarried partners, increased from 3.2 million households in 1990 to 5.5 million in 2000. This represented 5% of all households in 2000 of which 4.9 million consisted of partners of the opposite gender (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004). Although these estimates may seem low, they represent only those who are cohabiting at any given point in time. In fact, the increase in cohabitation is one of the most significant changes in family life in the latter part of the twentieth century (Casper & Bianchi, 2005).

The decline in married-couple families with children was most dramatic, falling from 40% in 1970 to 24% in 2000, whereas the percentage of married couples without children remained relatively stable at 30%. Family households with no spouse present increased significantly from 11% to 16%, whereas the percentage of households with persons living alone increased from 17% in 1970 to 26% in 2000. The number of female-headed family households with children and no husband present increased in number and proportion in the last 10 years from 6.6% to 7.2%. Yet the majority of children living in the U.S. resided with two parents. However, their proportion decreased from 77% in 1980 to 69% in 2000. In addition, a majority of children (79%) lived with at least one sibling or half-sibling (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004).

Marriage is one of the central institutions in our society and it affects the lives of a majority of people. Demographers project that at least 90% of persons in the U.S. eventually will marry (Amato, 2004a). However, marriage in the U.S. has changed in the last 50 years. Marriage rates have declined, age of first marriage has increased, and non-marital cohabitation has become common. Furthermore, non-marital births have increased: one-third of all births occur outside of marriage.

Whereas divorce rates climbed dramatically during the 1960s and 70s, they have been relatively stable, but high, since the 1980s. Divorce has been a concern, but the data are confusing, because there are several different ways to measure the “divorce rate.” The U.S. Census Bureau often projects a 50% rate of divorce, reflecting the proportion of marriages that will eventually end in divorce. This statistic has been revised downward to roughly 43% by the National Center of Health Statistics, and increased to about 50% by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2002 with several caveats. In general, demographers estimate that the figure is 40% to 60%, but most researchers accept a rate of 50% (Kreider & Fields, 2002). Divorce rates vary by state, region, and culture, and they are higher for subsequent marriages.

These data reveal that, for a variety of reasons, some families are growing apart in the rapidly changing environment. In addition to the consequences of the U.S. divorce rate and the decreasing marriage rate, the pursuit of autonomy by individuals has resulted in a loosening of family bonds and a higher potential for estrangement among family members, which often is intense and hurtful. In other words, maintaining family cohesion has been replaced by challenges to the notions of marriage, parenthood, family unity, and the belief that children come first. The U.S. has been seen as becoming increasingly individualistic as people are preoccupied with the unrestricted pursuit of personal happiness. Marital and family commitments last only as long as individuals feel happy and believe that their needs are being met (Amato, 2004b).

In contrast to the “marital decline” hypothesis (Glenn, 1996), other scholars perceive that the proportion of successful marriages in the population has increased (Bengston, Biblarz, & Roberts, 2002; Skolnick, 1991). According to this “marital resilience” perspective, troubled marriages existed in the past, as well as in the present. However, now it is easier to get a divorce without being stigmatized. Some family scholars perceive that divorce provides a second chance for happiness and an escape from home environments that are dysfunctional.

Mobility of families is also a concern in that family members no longer live in close proximity. The disbursement of family members throughout the country and the world has disconnected them from the extended family and all its unifying qualities. Although use of cellular phones, computers, and the Internet is on the rise, this does not make up for the quality of family interaction that may be lost during these transitions. And, because we tend to focus on individuality and the nuclear family, visiting becomes problematic due to geography, time, and transportation. Individual and family incomes have increased, but this economic independence has contributed to families growing apart. Moreover, due to geographic separation, resolving family issues and rifts is more difficult, which results in diminished family support. Children also may grow up barely knowing any of their relatives. As a result of this disconnection of families, certain trends such as workaholism, alcoholism, depression, severe stress, escapism, poverty, delinquency, violence, and declining academic achievement have been observed (LeBey, 2001; Whitehead, 1993).

Changing Family Definitions

Because of these contrasting perspectives of family life, any definition of what constitutes a family would be arbitrary. There are multiple ways to perceive the meaning of family including family of origin, family of procreation, or family of commitment or affiliation. These families of social construction are those that have been recreated to serve the nurturance and acceptance needs of the individual. In fact, some individuals define family as both their family of origin (biological family), as well as their family of choice (Bor & du Plessis, 1997).

Although there is no consensus as to what constitutes a family, it can be meaningful to view the family as a bonded unit of interacting and interdependent individuals who have some common goals, resources, and values, and who may share living space-at least for some part of their life cycle (Darling, 1.987). This non-exclusionary definition of the family embraces different family forms, sizes, ages, and role patterns, including same-sex marriages and families, children who divorce their parents, or families who socially allow a non-relative to become a part of the family. Such a definition facilitates viewing the family as a collection of interdependent, yet independent, individuals whose corporate identity differs from the individual identity of each member. When the family is viewed as an interacting group of individuals who are emotionally, physically, and socially interdependent, the focus is on the relationships among the family members rather than on the attributes of the group or the individual. In today’s complex world, a flexible perspective on the meaning of family is essential to facilitate the bonds that may have eroded through death, divorce, family separation, or circumstance.

Changing Family Issues and Challenges

Families are facing increased challenges related to health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, obesity, aging of family members, fear and violence, work-family boundaries, and family economic pressures. Here are several examples:

* HIV/AIDS is a contagious, infectious, and potentially fatal disease that has affected 886,575 in the U.S. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2002). The estimated number of deaths due to the disease is 501,669, including 496,354 adults and adolescents and 5,315 children under age 15. The number of deaths has declined with the use of Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy. However, as the survival period for persons with HIV/AIDS continues to increase, there is a growing concern about the stress, multifaceted costs, and concomitant quality of life for both individuals and families.

* Health concerns related to obesity in adults and children are frequently mentioned in the media. There are not only serious health risks due to obesity, but also economic costs, frequently borne by taxpayers, due to the long and expensive treatments for complications. Obesity in children is of particular concern and has been linked to increased television viewing, “super-sizing” of food portions, and food advertising that targets children (Crespo, 2001; Miller, 2001).

* The proportion of elderly persons in modern industrial societies is higher than ever. Life expectancy in the U.S. increased by almost 3 decades during the last century-from 45 years in 1900 to more than 75 years in 2000 (Bengston & Boss, 2000). This extension of life-span influences not only an individual’s life course, but also families and society. Although some remain healthy, vigorous, and alert, mostly due to retirement plans and being financially independent, other elderly persons have health issues that come with aging along with a lack of resources to help sustain their increased longevity (Skolnick, 2005). With people living longer, families are depending on multigenerational kin for support. However, because of high divorce rates and changes in family structure, family support for elderly may be dwindling and creative solutions need to be employed in families and communities.

* Disasters of all kinds may strike quickly and without warning; they may affect one’s own family or the families of others, or they may be based on acts of nature, family violence, or acts of terrorism. As a result, it is important to look at the type and context of the violence (Johnson & Ferraro, 2001). These events can be frightening for adults, but they are particularly traumatic for children if they do not know what to do. Violence, terrorism, and fear are transmitted through the media, resulting in a culture of personal unrest. Whenever there are attacks on children or families or when public terror alerts are issued, there is concern for the safety of family members. Parents must pay attention to the reactions of children and family members in dealing with these traumatic events (Myers-Walls, 2004).

* Managing the multiple roles of worker, spouse, and parent in conjunction with the interactive effects of work and family stress adds pressure to the lives of family members (Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, & Crouter, 2001). Moreover, the boundaries between home and work are becoming blurred, making home a “portable” concept. As a result, people are becoming concerned with their increasingly work-centric, mobile, multitasking approach to life. Thus, new ways of balancing work and family life need to be explored. Because the home has become more of a workplace, what has happened to the traditional “work” in the home (Jackson, 2003)?

* Communications technologies are becoming the defining characteristic of our era, but at what price? At the micro level, some parents fear that children are at risk for virtual dangers in relationships both in the content of the messages, as well as the context of delivery. One new phenomenon is “toothing,” which is made possible through mobile phones, laptops, and handheld computers. Using Bluetooth technology, these devices are able to talk to one another and use the Internet without wired connections. The practice is being used in small spaces, such as public transportation, to organize sexual encounters with strangers by having a mobile device scour the surrounding environment to seek other Bluetooth devices. Another concern is “e-bullying,” the intrusive use of mobile phones to send messages of a threatening nature that include personal information (Pendergast, 2004). At the macro level, facilitation of globalization is an important result of new technological advances. Although electronic communication provides quick and easy messaging, are individuals losing the ability to share with others at a deeper level while becoming dependent on global companies to manage communications?

* Family economic pressures are a major issue and exist across the lifespan, whether it is concern for an adequate funding base for education, unemployment, retirement, Healthcare, or meeting the basic needs of individuals and families. In 2002, the U.S. Census Bureau indicated that although it fell through the latter half of the 1990s, the poverty rate rose in 2001 to 11.7%. Moreover, the number of families living in poverty rose from 6.4 million (8.7%) in 2000 to 6.8 million (9.2%) in 2001 (Proctor & Dalaker, 2002). Unfortunately, there has been no report on the status of assets in lowincome and working poor families. In other words, net worth has decreased, meaning that if families had to live on their net worth, they could survive at the poverty level for only 3 months. Low income and working-poor families face barriers to consistent employment and economic stability that are either endogenous (personal and familial) or exogenous (community and society based) (NCFR, 2003a).

It is evident that there is an increasing need for policymakers to promote the well being of families, which can be facilitated by assessing the impact of policies and programs on families (NCFR, 2000). Family policymakers face two dilemmas: (a) how families will care and nurture their members now that women are no longer in the role of unpaid caregiver, and (b) how a competitive, information-based economy can sustain and nurture families and the social infrastructure needed to survive. New ways to look at families are needed-both through a private lens and also through a public lens-because families play an important role in the market economy (Skolnick, 2000). Marginalized families with minimal access to power, such as the poor, minorities, non-English-speaking immigrants, the uneducated, the homeless, the disabled, and those dealing with mental illness and substance abuse, need to be partners in the development of policies and programs that influence their lives (Greder, Brotherson, & Garasky, 2004). Time and money pressures haunt many families. Thus, there is a critical need to examine public policies thorough a family lens based on the realities of economic changes and an irreversible shift in gender roles.

Professional associations such as AAFCS and the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) have been a collective voice for family-focused issues. These two organizations have sponsored joint public policy conferences along with congressional meetings and briefings on family issues. An effective way to influence policy for families is through providing quality data based on research, which can be provided by the members of these organizations. However, individual members of these and other groups also need to engage in policy action in their work environments and communities at the local, state, and national levels (Saunders & Benjamin, 2004).

Families are the nation’s most important resource. They provide the buffer and protection that keep children and adults safe. However, much of the information about family life is not getting to the people who need it (NCFR, 2003b). Although there are various professionals such as the clergy, social workers, and those in healthcare who focus on families, it is family life educators and FCS professionals who incorporate a preventative and educational approach to individual and family issues. By linking research with education, practice, and policy formation, it is possible to strengthen, improve, and enrich family experience. Strong families make for a strong future.

Note: The author wishes to thank Cynthia Wilson, doctoral candidate and research assistant from Florida State University, for her assistance with this article.

Copyright American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences Jan 2005

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