Lizeth Hernandez's family is typical in some ways. She lives in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, with her husband and two young sons. They make a combined income of about $40,000 a year; but in high-cost New York, and with family members to support in Mexico, they needed help. So Hernandez's sister and her two kids moved in to make ends meet. That's when their blended family stopped being typical.
"It's tight, but it's better for us to support each other," says Hernandez. Her sister Anabel is attending community college and works in a restaurant.
Families like Hernandez's, where members double and triple up in housing, have become more common since the economic downturn of the past few years. So have blended families made and remade by divorce and remarriage, families headed by single parents, and families headed by single parents, like Anabel's.
But even as the American family has changed and public attitudes about families have shifted, policy targeted at supporting families continues to fall back on the idea that the ideal family for kids is one with two married parents.
Over the next few weeks, Next America will examine a recent push from policymakers, foundations, and service organizations to help preschool children get on the right path to socioeconomic prosperity by supporting their parents. The way those families are modeled is key to how the policies and programs are drafted.
Analysis of population figures by the Pew Research Center shows that fewer kids live in the idealized nuclear family (two parents on their first marriage) than before divorce and cohabitation became more common—72 percent in 1960 compared with 46 percent in 2013—and that families headed by a single parent have increased dramatically, from 9 percent of kids in 1960 to about a third in 2013.
Sticking to an older ideal of family is not just a disservice to different families, but it's a political shortcut that can have grave consequences, according to Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.
"Maybe because Leave it to Beaver was in black and white, politicians think it was a documentary," said Coontz. "Being nostalgic for a way that families never were takes you off the hook for the harder question about how families' needs are changing and how we can meet them now."
As one example, she pointed to research that has debunked the long-held idea that stay-at-home moms of the 1950s and 1960s spent more time with their kids than today's working moms. "The expectations were different," she said.
Yet experts like Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam argue that one of the reasons more affluent families can compound their success across generations is that they are more likely to have one parent who can spend the hours and focus needed to prepare kids from birth with the cognitive and emotional skills needed for success later in life.
And these attitudes among policymakers on either side of the political spectrum have remained, and perhaps even solidified, as family structures other than the mother-father-children model have moved closer to the average American family experience.
But policy, and the rhetoric that often leads to it, has long regarded the family as an endangered species. While introducing the Head Start program in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson characterized preschool children as "inheritors of poverty's curse" who needed help beyond what their parents could give. At the signing of welfare-reform legislation in 1996, Vice President Al Gore described the law as helping families escape poverty by "exercising personal responsibility and working hard," code alluding to stereotypes of the single-mom (often figured as black) "welfare queen." A federally sponsored program launched in 2003 to provide marriage education for low-income couples referred to the effects on kids of stable married parents as its driving rationale. And as recently as last year, President Obama's initiative My Brother's Keeper was designed with the stated goal of addressing "broken" families.
Regardless of how U.S. families are set up, many public attitudes about them have changed significantly. "Most Americans, once you get past some knee-jerk rhetoric, are actually very sympathetic to pressures families are facing," said Coontz. "They are more open than 20 years ago and think that it doesn't matter what a family looks like on the outside, we should support them."
This view is backed by a 2010 Pew survey that found significant attitude shifts, to the point that nonnuclear family structures are less likely to be demonized or assumed to be harmful to children. While the vast majority see single parents, unmarried couples with children, and gay and lesbian couples with kids as legitimate families, 7 out of 10 thought single women having kids is bad for society, and almost 8 in 10 thought that kids of single parents face more challenges than those in two-parent households.
And the challenges to these different families go beyond what has been imagined by narratives centered on the two-parent nuclear family. Families like Lizeth and Anabel's are the ones that Reina Prado sees most often among the students she teaches as a community college instructor in Glendale, California.
"We have so many students who at 21, 22 years old, are the family breadwinners, heads of families, taking on worldly responsibilities," Prado said. "When I was that age, I didn't have to provide for much beyond my education."
Prado thinks these young parents have already taken the right steps, seeking a college education. But for these families, thinks Prado, policies such as affordable child care would go a long way toward giving them the tools to make the best decisions for their families. "If you have decent child care, the kids can get that attention and the stimulation, whether it's from their parents or other caring adults," she said.
This story is part of our Next America: Early Childhood project, which is supported by grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Heising-Simons Foundation.
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