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Valerie Young's picture

If you think the typical American household is straight, married parents living with their kids, you are so last century!

The “nuclear family” model actually fits a mere 20 percent of  U.S. households. Recent data gathered by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in the past 40 years, both men and women are waiting longer to get married, likely living alone before children are born and again in later life, and having fewer children over all. Only 66 percent of households have a family relationship. Most of these are comprised of a married couple without children. This reflects a complete turn around from the status quo in 1970, when most married couples had children. Single parents now head nine percent of family households, with single mother households five times more common than single father households.

While many more people now live together without marriage than in previous decades, just under 90 percent of men and women will marry at some point in their lives.  Women, whether married are not, are far more likely to have at least once child by the time they hit 40, at 81 percent.  About 2/3 of all American children live with both parents.  Twenty-one million children live with one parent, usually their mother.

The “stay-at-home mother”, however, grew more scarce during the recession. In 2007, about 24 percent of mothers with children under 15 were dependent upon an employed spouse and stayed out of the paid labor force for at least a full year. Usually in response to a husband’s job loss, a formerly stay-at-home mother returned to the workforce as the recession hit and deepened. The number of SAHMS dipped, but returned to pre-recession levels finally in 2012. Overall, though, few mothers stay out of the paid workforce for the long term, even if they devote some years to family care. Between 2/3 and 3/4 of children under 15 have mothers working outside the home.

Strangely, while the recession propelled some mothers into the workforce, it didn’t create a significant number of new full-time caregiving dads. Between 2007 and 2012, the number of stay-at-home dads remained below one percent where it sits today. So, while there are a number of articles and features about full-time caregiver fathers, their actual numbers remain startlingly few.

In the fall of 2013, the biggest trend is the shrinking size of households, and the increasing number of people who live alone. The number of married couple and family households is falling. The economic well-being of all family types is falling too. What will it all mean?

Here’s one result you can count on. We are about to fall right over the edge into a national care crisis. People who live alone won’t have a spouse, partner, or even a roommate to help out if they get sick or need assistance. Boomers are aging alone in their homes. Shrinking family size means there are fewer adult children to help elderly parents with cooking, or shopping, or getting to the doctor. What adult children there are probably live elsewhere, and can’t easily leave their jobs. While highly educated professionals might have access to some paid leave, most private companies don’t offer it. Employers subject to the Family Medical Leave Act have to offer an employee family and medical leave, but they don’t have to continue paying an employee who uses it. As most workers are living paycheck to paycheck, unpaid leave amounts to no leave at all in many cases.

Chances are, if you’re caring for young children now, you may also be helping your parents periodically, or will be soon. If you’re married, you and your spouse will be working longer, to compensate for the ravages of the recession on your retirement savings and the galloping costs of medical care. You’ll be working at older ages, trying to manage your own  health and maybe caring for your aging partner too.

The good news – and there is good news – is that one set of policies can help families no matter where you are in your family life. Paid leave, based on an expanded and improved FMLA, will offer men and women the opportunity to learn how to parent a newborn or newly adopted child. It will also give you time to recover from an injury or illness, or help a family member do the same. Paid sick days will get you to the doctor when you need it, let you stay home with a child suffering from the flu, or allow you to drive your elderly parent to a medical appointment. Whether you are male or female, the caregiver or the care recipient, a child, parent, or adult child, you and your family will benefit. You will hear more about improving our family leave law and implementing a paid sick days program when Congress returns after its summer recess. When you do, remember that you and the people you love will be running up against this care crisis many times in your lives. It’s worth it to get the right policies in place.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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