M Tucker, Saskia K Subramanian, Angela D James. Handbook of Contemporary Families. Editor: Marilyn Coleman & Lawrence H Ganong. Sage Publication. 2004.
Throughout their history in the Western Hemisphere, African Americans have displayed great diversity in the form and function of family units. Due to both the cultural heterogeneity that characterized people who represented many different ethnic groupings and the varied conditions under which Africans lived in the New World, the establishment and development of domestic units necessarily took many paths. As we have argued previously, this background may be a factor in the dramatic changes that have characterized African American family formation over the past 30 years (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995a). That is, the experience of enslavement, racial discrimination, and severe economic deprivation fostered an adaptive flexibility that may have been the basis for their responses to the more recently experienced array of challenging conditions. In some respects, African American family diversity foretold many of the changes that would eventually be manifest in the U.S. population as a whole. Though the causes of specific trends in family formation may differ among U.S. subpopulations, it seems clear that today no specific family type can be considered characteristic of any one group. Increased diversity in the form of domestic units may be the hallmark of African American family life.
The purpose of this chapter is threefold: (a) to describe what has happened to African American families and domestic units over the last 30 years, (b) to discuss whether and how new scholarship has helped professionals and families adapt to any changes that might have occurred, and (c) to offer predictions about the course of African American family and domestic development over the next several decades. With these goals in mind, however, we must emphasize that in our view, the construct of family is evolving and dynamic both in terms of societal definitions and as experienced by individuals over time. This discussion therefore focuses on family as a lived, sometimes irregular, experience rather than an idealized and fixed representation.
African-American Family Formation and Maintenance in the Late 20th Century
There have been numerous examinations of late-20th-century trends in African domestic arrangements (see Bennett, Bloom, & Craig, 1989, 1992; Cherlin, 1981; Espenshade, 1985; Hernandez, 1993; Hill, 1993; Mare & Winship, 1991; Rodgers & Thornton, 1985; Taylor, Chatters, Tucker, & Lewis, 1990; Taylor, Tucker, Chatters, & Jayakody, 1997; Tucker, 2000a; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995b; Wilson, 1987). Conclusions about the nature, magnitude, and meanings of trends vary, reflecting differences in temporal boundaries, comparative intent, and ideological orientation (Tucker, 2000a). That is, comparisons anchored in the 1950s, a fairly aberrant period characterized by high rates of marriage, marital stability, and the growth of nuclear families, rather than earlier or later periods would reveal more dramatic behavioral shifts. This suggests that to understand certain family trends, a broader historical perspective is required. Just as importantly, however, recent changes in African American family formation must be considered within the context of the remarkable stability characteristic of previous generations (Franklin, 1997). In the discussion that follows, we refer to more detailed analyses of the key structural changes that have distinguished African American families in the latter half of the 20th century (Tucker, 2000a; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995a). Major trends in African American domestic life can be examined in terms of several broad domains: marriage and divorce, family and household composition, childbearing behavior and child-rearing arrangements, the economic support of families, and racial characteristics of families.
African-American Family Trends since the 1970s
Marriage and Divorce
There has been a decline in marital prevalence among African Americans, reflecting greater marital delay, a greater tendency for some to never marry, and higher divorce rates (see Tucker, 2000a). Between 1970 and 2000, the percentage of African Americans who had ever married declined from 64% to 55% among men and from 72% to 58% among women (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003). During the same time period, those who were currently married declined from 57% to 39% for men and from 54% to 31% among women. During the 1980s, it had appeared that the rate of decline in marriage was slowing, but new figures show a major swing away from marriage among blacks during the 1990s, especially among women as the percentage currently married declined by a full 10%. For the first time in recent history, the percentage of never-married women (42%) and men (45%) exceeded the percentage currently married (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001b).
Reflecting a larger societal trend, between 1970 and 1990, the African American divorce ratio (number of divorced persons per 1,000 married persons) more than tripled from 104 to 358 (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995b). Though divorce rates leveled off during the 1990s, the Bureau of the Census’s 1996 Panel of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) revealed that half of ever-married black women were divorced from their first husbands, compared to 40% of white and 24% of Asian/Pacific Islander women (Kreider & Fields, 2002). Amato and Keith (1991) projected that three quarters of African American children born to married parents would experience their parents’ divorce before reaching the age of 16. (Unfortunately, the primary source of national data on marriage and divorce, the National Center for Health Statistics [NCHS], stopped collecting detailed information on marriage and divorce in 1996.)
These trends were most pronounced among the young. For example, although marriage is unlikely before the age of 24, in the year 2000 75% of black women aged 45 to 49 and over 90% of those over 60 had been married. Marriage is also normative among older African American men, with about 75% of those in their 40s and 85% of those in their early 50s having married at least once (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001b).
As the population of African-descended persons in the United States becomes more ethnically diverse through immigration by blacks from several nations, family domestic patterns are seen to vary along these cultural lines. For example, Nigerians and persons from the Dutch West Indies have a greater tendency to marry, and Dutch West Indians and Cape Verdeans are more likely to divorce (Tucker, 2000a).
Family and Household Composition
As both consequence and corollary of changing marital behavior, there has been a fundamental shift in the proportional representation of various family and household types and in the visibility of family arrangements that were once rare. For example, in 1970, black married couples with children made up nearly 25% of households; in 2000, that figure had dropped to less than 17% of households. Households headed by women, with no male present, have increased substantially. In 30 years, the proportion of households containing individuals living alone increased from 15% to 27% (which is 9.4% of the total population), and by 2000, fully half (49.2%) of households maintained by persons aged 15 to 64 did not include children (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1973, 2001b, 2002a, 2002c).
Approximately 8% of the black population is age 65 and over (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001a). Older blacks are far more likely to live alone than those who are younger and are more likely to live alone than older persons of other races: 45% of black householders aged 65 and over and 30% of the total older population live alone (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002a, 2003). This is due partly to spousal loss, which (based on 1993 data) was also greater than for other races for both men (23%) and women (56%) (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999b). At the same time, however, older blacks are also twice as likely as whites to live in households with three or more persons in what are likely to be both extended and child-rearing family situations (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002a).
On the whole, these data paint a picture of an African American population that appears in some respects to be less communal over time, with more persons living alone, fewer children, and less marriage. Sudarkasa (1997) cited this disaggregation of households as the most significant change in black family organization over the last 30 years. Paralleling these trends is the soci-etywide increased visibility of two household types that were in earlier times relatively rare: increased nonmarital cohabitation among persons of the opposite sex and greater numbers of same-sex couples sharing domiciles.
In 2000, approximately 11% of African American women and men in heterosexual couples sharing a domicile were not married (Fields & Casper, 2001)a percentage that is probably underestimated, according to the Bureau of the Census. Though cohabiting relationships are generally less enduring than marriages, this is especially true for African Americans. Recent data from the National Survey of Family Growth showed that black women were more likely than other groups to experience disruption of cohabiting relationships and were less likely to make the transition from such relationships into marriage (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002).
Census data on race for same-sex couples are problematic because they are classified on the basis of the race of the main householder. Yet African Americans make up 10.8% of all same-sex couples (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2003). Though the total number accounts for less than 2% of all couples containing an African American, this figure is quite likely an underestimate due to a hesitancy to report such relationships.
Childbearing Behavior and Living Arrangements of Children
One area in which there has been tremendous change over the last several decades is the circumstances surrounding the birth and rearing of African American children. The decline in marriage among African Americans has been accompanied by a shift in the proportion of children born to and/or reared by married parents. Overall birth rates of black women (without respect to marital status) have declined by nearly half over the last four decades, from 31.9 per 1,000 women in 1960 to 17.6 in 2000 (Martin, Hamilton, Ventura, Menacker, & Park, 2002; Ventura, Martin, Curtin, Menacker, & Hamilton, 2001). In 1996, births among African American teenagers reached the lowest point ever recorded54.7 births per 1,000 women (Ventura, Curtin, & Matthews, 1998).
Children’s living arrangements have undergone similar change. In 1970, nearly 60% of children lived with both parents; by 2000, only 38% lived with both a mother and a father (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001c). Although this figure has been stable since 1990, national estimates from the SIPP data set richly portray the increasingly complex living arrangements of children society-wide, even within two-parent homes. In 1996, just over 20% of African American children under 18 lived in stepfamilies, composed of various combinations of stepparents, stepsiblings, half-siblings, and other relatives (Fields, 2001). Moreover, if national trends apply equally to blacks, a significant proportion of African American children are living under the care of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transsexual parents (Kearl, 2002).
Perhaps the living situation that has received most attention in recent times is that of the grandparenteven great-grandparent(most often a woman) as custodian (Minkler & Roe, 1993; Ruiz, 2000; Taylor et al., 1997; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1999a). The number of children overall with custodial grandparents has nearly doubled since 1970, from 3% to 5.6%, with such households significantly more likely to be black, in the South, in central cities, and poor (Casper & Bryson, 1998).
Family Type and Poverty
Though the details are beyond the scope of this chapter, changes in living arrangements of children have been accompanied by increased child poverty (Tucker, 2000a).
In 1999, although just over 9% of black two-parent families with children were impoverished, 42% of single-mother families had incomes below poverty levels, and 25% of single fathers were poor (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002b). Besides reflecting the greater economic difficulties of single women, who quite likely have few educational resources, such a difference is indicative of the increasingly selective nature of married black couples, which are more likely than ever to involve professional men and women. To the extent that family type is strongly associated with income, the changes in family organization observed for African Americans since 1970 are accompanied by significant economic correlates. Among blacks, married-couple families have incomes that come closest to white income levels.
An earlier review of 1997 Current Population Survey (CPS) data also showed that among both black and white couples two thirds relied on two or more salaries (Tucker, 2000a). However, because black wives’ incomes are much closer to those of their husbands, black middle-class status is more dependent on the labor force participation of women. In 75% of households maintained by single black women, there was at least one wage earner, thus belying the image of welfare dependency (Tucker, 2000a). This was well before the new federal workfare regulations were instituted. Older blacks, however, are less able to work and less likely to have retirement funds or savings; consequently, they are much more likely to be impoverished than same-age persons of other races. According to the 2001 Current Population Survey, nearly 17% of black men aged 65 and over and 26% of black women lived below the poverty levelwhich is about 3 and 2.5 times, respectively, the level of poverty among elderly whites (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics & U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2002).
Multiethnic and Multiracial Families
Though still proportionately small as a total percentage of households containing black members, the number of persons who are in multiracial/ethnic households or families, or are multiracial/ethnic themselves, is steadily increasing. In the 1970 census, 0.7% of all marriages involved persons of at least two different races; by 1980, such marriages represented 2% of the total (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998), and unmarried partners were twice as likely to be of different races than married partners (Fields & Casper, 2001). Interracial marriages were still about three times more likely to involve African American men than women. However, data from our surveys indicated that over half of single black women have dated someone of another race and that many now express a willingness to outmarry (Taylor, Tucker, & Mitchell-Kernan, 2003; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995a).
The racial makeup of homes has changed in other ways. In 1990, 6.3% of children in households in which at least one parent was black were reported to be of a race different from that of at least one of their parents, triple the percentage observed for whites (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1998).
African American families have undergone significant structural changes and diversification over the last three decades. Factors believed to be driving these trends (e.g., economic changes, societal value shifts, demographic shifts) are discussed elsewhere (e.g., Billingsley, 1992; Franklin, 1997; Tucker, 2000a; Wilson, 1996). Although we did not explore these potentially causal factors, it seems clear to us that many of the structural changes are adaptive attempts to maintain family units in the face of adversity. These particular changes, though, convey greater salience for certain research topics. The next section assesses the meaningfulness of such research for individual actions and professional support.
The Role of Scholarship in Society’s Adjustment to Family Diversity
Although arguably a key aim of family research is to inform the public and advance professional support for families, it is not entirely clear that this objective has been met. First, whether and how the general public, and African Americans in particular, gain access to the results of research remains a question. As more universities and scientific organizations maintain media relations units, reports on the products of academe appear rather regularly in conventional news outlets and even the popular media. In addition, the proliferation of Web sites on family life has further helped to distill (and in some cases distort) scholarly findings. However, compared to other racial groups in the United States, African Americans have limited computer and Internet access (National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 2002). Even when the general public gains access to data reports, understanding the nuanced results of complex, often equivocal, research may be beyond the means of most nonscientists. In this section, we will discuss several of the main lines of scholarship relevant to African American family trends and the extent to which findings in these areas are constructive in broadening public knowledge. A particularly problematic area of study has been the attempt to discern whether certain types of family arrangements are beneficial or harmful to children. Research has focused on several dimensions of parenthood that in recent years have become more pervasive among African Americans, including divorce, father absence, working mothers, and child- or marriage-free households.
Emblematic of the conflict that permeates this area of research is a 1997 article in the Nation in which family historian Stephanie Coontz traced the public frenzy surrounding the publication of Judith Wallerstein’s two-decade study of the outcomes of 131 children of divorced parents in Marin County, California (Wallerstein & Blakeslee, 1989). Wallerstein reported high rates of long-term psychological distress and, in a later follow-up, drug and alcohol abuse as well in children whose parents had divorced (Wallerstein, Lewis, & Blakeslee, 2000). Despite the decidedly skewed sample in terms of income and initial family functioning, the media embraced these findings with over 200 articles and opinion pieces, popularizing the notion that divorce had tremendous long-term impacts on children (Coontz, 1997). Less publicly visible were other studies with more representative samples that reached different conclusions, demonstrating far weaker effect sizes and the transitory nature of some negative effects (Amato & Keith, 1991; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Stewart, Copeland, Chester, Malley, & Barenbaum, 1997).
The more limited studies on African Americans seem to portray a more negative picture, however, based largely on the more economically precarious circumstances of many blacks. Furstenberg (1990) has noted that because women compared to men suffer more economically after divorce (due to unequal physical custody of children, low or absent child support/alimony, and disparate earning capacity), the impact is even greater for African American women, who are “especially vulnerable to all these sources of poverty” (p. 387). He cited census data showing that both separated and divorced black women were more likely to be poor than their white counterparts. Though white women were likely to marry again, thereby enjoying some economic gain, African American women were further disadvantaged in this regard by a diminished pool of available and financially able mates.
Clearly, our understanding of the effects of divorce on African American children and families is far from complete, which compromises the utility of the work for public use. One area that remains relatively unexplored is how extended kinship networks in African American communities may mediate the potentially negative effects on children of parental separations.
Much scholarly research has considered the effects of father absence on households and children. As noted earlier, African American children are likely to live in homes without two parents and without biological fathers or stepfathers. The economic issues noted above are central (Lerman, 2002), and the lack of child support from fathers contributes to the impoverishment of single-mother families. Sorensen and Zibman (2000), who conducted one of the few studies specifically addressing the issue of poor fathers and barriers to the provision of support for their children, noted that only 35% of children (of all races and income levels) with a nonresident father receive formal child support payments and that following separation children are 70% more likely to be poor than their fathers. Yet one third of nonresidential fathers who do not pay formal child support are poor themselves and, as is characteristic of impoverished persons in this society more generally, are more likely to be black or Latino.
Sorensen and Zibman (2001) further observed that despite facing similar employment barriers (e.g., limited education and work experience), poor fathers typically have less access than poor women to most work support programs. The economic coping of poor noncustodial fathers, however, is little explored or understood, and relatively little research has focused specifically on African American fathers and black fatherhood. This is due in part to widespread undercounting of this population by national surveys and the census (which tends to miss men who are not in stabile domiciles and often does not report data on institutionalized fathers or those in group settings such as the military). Hairston (1998) pointed out that incarcerated fathers (who are overrepresented by African Americans; U.S. Department of Justice, 2002) are most marginalized and that the structural conditions of prison life and visitation make maintaining contact and negotiating a viable parenting role nearly impossible.
The research focus has been primarily on the effect of single parenthood on child outcomes. Less noted has been evidence that black fathers (custodial or noncustodial) may be as engaged or even more engaged with children than white fathers. Although Isaacs and Leon (1988) found that African American fathers living outside the household saw their children less frequently than did white fathers, later studies countered this view. Mott (1994), using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, found that despite differences in father residency across race, noncustodial black fathers were more likely than whites to be regular visitors of their children. Ahmeduzzaman and Roopnarine (1992) determined that although African American men in intact family settings spent less time than female partners in primary child care activities (like men in general in this society), they were accessible and involved with their children.
Cochran’s (1997) decade review of literature on African American fathers discussed the overuse of two models to understand father involvement: the deficit paradigm (in which behaviors and values diverging from a white middle-class standard are framed as aberrant and lacking) and the matriarchy model (in which black women are assumed to be serving as household heads because of the inability of African American men to fulfill this role). Although citing empirical advances enjoyed by adopting more Afrocentric and ecological approaches, she called for more qualitative work that captures the experience of black fathers and more longitudinal studies. Studies of black fathers have also focused disproportionately on absence among economically disadvantaged fathers, as opposed to the contributions of black fathers with greater economic means who do reside with their children. Adams and Nelson (2001) suggested that until scholars develop models that include the positive dimensions of African American males and their parenting patterns, our understanding of the values and norms of this sector of society will be incomplete.
Researchers on the whole suggest that father presence and involvement contributes to positive outcomes for children. And, given societal gender economic inequality, a father’s economic contributions are key to children’s economic well-being. However, in many African American communities, men are simply less available and less economically viable. The women in those communities, with few economic resources themselves, have limited options. The findings of research on the consequences of father absence have little meaning in this context, where the socioemotional benefits of motherhood would be compelling. The research, however, accentuates the need to further explore the documented role of the wider support system in the survival and maintenance of African American families (Stack, 1974; Taylor et al., 1990).
The effect on children of nonparental child care is a matter of great concern to parents, policy makers, and scholars alike. Well over half of all children between the ages of birth and 6 years (and not in kindergarten) spend time in child care; of these children, over half are looked after by a nonrelative in a home or in a center-based program (Childtrends Databank, 2002). This issue may have even greater significance for African American families, given that black children are more likely to be in a nonparental child care setting: 75% of black non-Hispanic children receive such care, as compared to 62% of white children and 47% of Hispanic children (Childtrends Databank, 2002). We simply do not know whether these kinds of arrangements are better or worse than parental care. Though research on this subject has been fairly extensive, the results are not without controversy and are ultimately far from conclusive (Aughinbaugh & Gittleman, 2003; Harvey, 1999; Hoffman, 1998; Waldfogel, Han, & Brooks-Gunn, 2002).
Some intriguing recent data, however, may have particular relevance for African American families. Harvey (1999) reported findings from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth indicating that early maternal employment is not consistently related to children’s development and that employment has positive effects for single mothers and low-income families. She suggested that in situations of great economic deprivation, the positive effects of maternal employment may stem from the benefits of increased family income.
Child- and/or Marriage-Free Households
Generally, research on the family has focused on family presence, not the lack thereof. Yet a significant proportion of the population foregoes marriage and/or children and is largely overlooked by scholars. This is an especially critical issue for African American women, among whom the numbers who do not have children and/or are single continue to grow. Crouse (1999) observed that the number of married women overall is at the lowest level in over 100 years. The NCHS (2002, Table 4, p. 85) showed that over 25% of women in their early 30s have not given birth (compared to 12% in 1970). Sixteen percent of women in their 40s are without children. (It is difficult to distinguish between those who are childless by choice or by circumstance) In recent years, organizations have formed locally and on the Internet for childless/child-free couples (www.nokidding.net) and singles (www.unmarried.org). The extent to which African Americans are involved in such movements is unknown.
Conventional wisdom dictates that children are a natural outcome and necessary addition to a marriage/family. However, social scientists have long observed a negative association between the presence of children and marital quality (Belsky, 1990; Somers, 1993; Waite & Lillard, 1991), though more recent research suggests that this phenomenon may be more complex and variable than previously realized (Bradbury, Fincham, & Beach, 2000). Our data from the Survey of Families and Relationships for 21 cities across the nation showed that having even one child is associated with decreased marital happiness (Tucker, in press). Conversely, Waite and Gallagher (2000) have detailed a series of highly controversial findings that being married is related to greater financial, social, and health (mental and physical) benefits. Studies of African Americans tend to confirm these results (Broman, 1988; Chatters, 1988; Zollar & Williams, 1987). Yet analyses of our data show that when the availability of social and socioeconomic resources is controlled for, African American women who have never married are not more psychologically distressed than those who are married, widowed, or in cohabiting nonmarital relationships (Tucker, in press).
Whether marriage is beneficial or not, singlehood is on the rise among African Americans, yet it is rarely explored in scholarly work. Further, there is little differentiation between those who elect not to marry and those who are less able to do so due to barriers such as limited mate availability, disabilities, or geographic isolation. Similarly, though infertility is studied, we know little about African American persons who are childless by choice or because of sociostructural constraints (limited access to partners).
Overall, there is little question that parents and professionals dealing with families rely on information disseminated by researchers. However, it is not clear how helpful scholars have been to these groups, given the equivocal nature of most results and given the limited accessibility to accurate and complete reports of research findings. Additionally, because many of the studies mentioned above either largely ignore or overutilize race (and confound it with socioeconomic status) as a variable, their usefulness to African Americans and support professionals is severely limited.
Looking toward the Future
In many ways, African Americans are leading the revolution in family life in the United States. Although not unique to African American families, declines and delays in marriage, increases in the proportion of single-parent families, and many other recent family changes have all been more extreme.
However, amidst the significant changes that have occurred in black family life in the last several decades, there is also significant continuity. For example, although African Americans have led most indicators of family change, they have not led in propensity to live alone as opposed to living in family households. Changes in single-parent households can be seen as a result of both the increased separation of marriage and childbearing and the constancy in the propensity of women to bear children at younger ages. So it should be acknowledged that most recent changes in family life are rooted in shifting marriage patterns rather than in diminishing family related values or commitments.
The Future of Marriage
Reflecting on the continuities as well as the discontinuities of family behavior among African Americans, we are willing to make several predictions about the future directions of African American families. First, we feel confident that despite low levels of marriage, the institution of marriage will continue to be highly valued and sought after. We base this expectation on a number of indicators. First, marriage is still favored by religious institutions, which appear to be regaining membership as well as dominance in black communities in recent years. Further, most surveys reveal that the great majority of young adults, African American and white, expect to marry even as they express high levels of acceptance of single-hood (East, 1998; Sweet & Bumpass, 1992). Despite relatively large racial differences in marital behavior, blacks are only slightly less likely than whites to want and expect to get married (East, 1998; Sweet & Bumpass, 1992). Indeed, Tucker (2000b) found that when age, education, and income were controlled for, African Americans were no less likely to expect to marry than whites. Whether these marital expectations will translate into marriage, however, remains to be seen.
We expect that present divorce rates will continue to decline among African Americans. We base this prediction on several contemporary marriage patterns. First, the increasing prevalence of single, never-married adults suggests that there may be substantial selection into marriage. Individuals who are perhaps ill suited to marriage but who in times past married because of social pressure to do so may now be more likely to remain unmarried. Further, people marrying today may be less motivated to do so by transitory sexual or romantic attraction and more motivated by longer-term considerations of lifestyle and personal compatibility, which enhance the likelihood of marital stability. The conservative trend toward covenant marriage and other explicitly promarriage policies may act to discourage those in unhappy marriages from divorcing.
Women and Work
Women’s labor market participation and success have increasingly made them more attractive as potential marriage partners. However, viewing economic considerations as important and actually combining work and family roles and responsibilities are very different matters. Although most people have the notion that black women have continuously and universally participated in the labor force, this perception is rooted in the previous dramatic differences between black and white women. Our own analysis of data from the Current Population Surveys shows that in March 1971, 48% of married black women and 36% of white women worked outside the home; by March 2000, that figure had risen to just over 60% for black women and 57% for white women. So although in 1970 black women were considerably more likely than married white women to work, in 2000 the difference was negligible. Given the general rise in women’s labor force participation, as well as the longstanding presence of black women in the labor force, we predict the continuing importance of labor force participation of both marital partners among African Americans. Increasingly, middle-class economic standing for either black or white families is accomplished only by virtue of two incomes. Home ownership, private schools, and a host of other middle-class “necessities” require substantial economic resources Moreover, given the insecurities associated with employment today, a second income serves as a buffer when one partner faces job separation.
We want to add a caveat to this prediction, though, by noting two divergent trends. Recent convergence of white and black married women’s labor force participation is due both to dramatic increases in white women’s labor market participation and to a slight decline in black married women’s labor force participation. Recent, though small, declines in black married women’s labor force participation, along with rising numbers of families who home-school their children (Bauman, 2001), suggest a trend of family conservatism among African Americans. Families who are able to subsist on a single income may increasingly consider unattractive the difficulty of combining two careers with family life. That said, we predict that the engine of economic necessity and female economic importance in the global, postmodern economy will necessitate ever-increasing shifts in gender roles and familial expectations among African Americans.
The continuing labor force participation of black women may lead to several other cultural changes. First, we expect that the added economic value of two partners will act to shore up the worth, though perhaps not the stability, of African American marriages, which are subject to a number of economic, social, and physical strains. According to marriage theorists, women’s employment could affect the formation of marriage in two very different ways. On the one hand, it could decrease the motivation to marry, as it provides an economic alternative for women (Becker, 1981). On the other hand, it could increase the opportunity to marry by having a positive effect on the ability of young couples to set up independent households (Oppenheimer, 1988, 1994). Of course, women’s labor force participation, particularly in high-salaried occupations, may merely affect the timing of marriage. Increasing the amount of time women spend obtaining training and academic credentials could consequently delay marriage for them (Oppenheimer, 1988, 1994). The continuing value of married women’s labor suggests several cultural changes. For instance, obtaining high-quality child care and arranging flexible work schedules will be of increasing significance as social problems.
Another trend we anticipate in the next several decades also has to do with the labor force participation of married women. In 1996, one third of married black women made more money than their spouses (Freeman, 2000). Given current gender imbalances in college and university enrollments, which are particularly pronounced among African Americans, we expect that it may become increasingly common for black women to have higher incomes than their spouses. Although such changes may be difficult to negotiate in the short run, and marital conflict may result, in the long run there may well be an expanded definition of appropriate gender role behavior.
Conceptualizations of women and appropriate female behavior have changed dramatically over the last half-century (Buss, Shackelford, Kirkpatrick, & Larsen, 2001; Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001). Not so long ago, men valued women’s domestic qualities as important mate selection criteria. By contrast, men today rarely rank domestic qualities as particularly important. Although there are signs of significant shifts, conceptualizations of men’s gender role and family responsibility have not changed nearly as fast as women’s have. Our perhaps optimistic prediction is that household power and housework will become more equitably shared and that married African American men and women will lead this trend. We also predict that these struggles over equity and power sharing may lead to more concerted efforts to redefine men’s roles and gender role expectations more generally.
Expansion of Family Roles and Responsibilities: Big Mama and the Beloved Aunt
We also envisage the increasing importance and prominence of expanded family ties. As people live longer, and if marriages continue to be somewhat fragile and increasingly rare, a wider range of kinship ties will become progressively more central to everyday family life. A range of family members outside the co-resident household may be available to perform family functions. For example, our research team notes the presence and importance of a beloved aunt in many African American families, usually a single and child-free woman who has a particularly close and influential role in the lives of young people. Similarly, male role models for many young men are their mother’s brothers rather than their biological fathers. We expect that as the population of never-married and child-free individuals increases so will the presence of this special beloved aunt/beloved uncle relationship. Another family trend is the increasingly important family roles and responsibilities of grandparents. Grandparents have already become a significant resource for many families, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in the numbers of grandparents serving as primary guardians for their children’s offspring. Melvin Wilson (1984) and Flaherty, Factreau, and Garver (1987) have elucidated the critical role of African American grandparents in caregiving, instruction, and management. Though Burton and colleagues (Burton & Bengtson, 1985; Burton & Dilworth-Anderson, 1991) and Minkler and Roe (1993) cautioned that the context of grandparent involvement has changed, with both younger entry into grandparenthood and more parental incapacitation (e.g., substance abuse, criminal justice involvement), grandparent providers are now under much greater stress. For this reason, we believe that people will increasingly take advantage of a wider range of family members, as well as community members, to offset the uncertainties of marriage and family life. At base, we believe that the family as an institution is adaptive and highly responsive to changing demands and needs. As such, our predictions spring from the expectation that African American families will continue to exhibit flexibility in the face of modern and postmodern exigencies.