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."