The diversity of patterns of American family life is really remarkable. Various things account for this: ethnic background, immigration date of their forebears, social background, religion, and other factors. The ancestors of present-day Americans came from more than 17 different European countries, Canada, Mexico, from other Latin American nations, as well as from Africa, China, Japan, the Philippines and many other eastern countries. There are over 22 million blacks (Afro-Americans) living in the US. In addition there are more than 700,000 Native Americans (American Indians). It is now estimated that by the year 2050 half of Americans will be Hispanic, Black, or Asian by ethnic background. This great diversity makes family customs so varied.
People’s living standards vary greatly – from the affluence of the rich in the upper income bracket and the moderate but satisfying living standards of the so-called “middle class” to the very low incomes of those who are on official subsistence using welfare because they are either unemployed or lack the necessary means for day-to-day living.
Welfare and poverty problems have been a central issue for many years. Many are inclined to treat welfare recipients as “undeserving poor” who are alleged to have low intelligence or low ambition. President John F. Kennedy was the first to generate programs directed toward services and work-oriented counseling for the welfare poor. The subculture of poverty is sometimes seen as pathological and contradictory to the values cherished by the middle class which emphasize hard work, motivation to succeed, thrift and stable family life. Some play up the image of “undeserving” masses of welfare recipients. But in fact, their economic plight can be combatted only through dealing with flaws in the surrounding social and economic system, such as racial discrimination or high rates of unemployment. As a matter of fact, the poor, both blacks and whites, never have had freedom of choice. Their education for the most part has been inadequate and the market has been unable to absorb all the working hands. The solution to the problem of poverty lies in the change of the culture and values of the poor by means of expanding social work, education, and training programs.
Though some people claim that welfare recipients do not try to work, many surveys have found that for most welfare recipients work patterns are seasonal or irregular; for many work and welfare are alternative means of economic existence; for some welfare supplements low wages; there are also such reasons as poor health, the lack of child care, the inability to find work. Attitudes of typical welfare recipients in fact are not anti-work or oriented toward laziness and delight with welfare living. Seven in ten would rather work for pay than stay at home on welfare. Many mothers have no good place to leave their children all day. It is obvious that the poor, young and old, black and white – are very work-oriented and usually have as high aspirations as the nonpoor. Studies have also found a negative attitude toward being on welfare among many recipients. Most people think that getting money from welfare makes a person feel ashamed. This feeling may account for the fact that a large proportion of those who have not found decent-paying jobs have not gone on welfare even though they qualify. Suggestions that the majority of welfare recipients live as well as the average American worker seem ludicrous. Many recipients are unable to afford medical or dental care; many put off paying the rent in order to buy enough food. The short of it is: Welfare is the “good life only for those who have not lived it.”
Marriage in the United States is considered a matter of individual responsibility and decision. American marriages are usually based on romantic love, rather than on social class, education, money, or religion. On the other hand, marriages between blacks and whites are rare. They probably account for fewer than 1 per cent of all marriages each year. Marriage is preceded by dating. Casual dating usually begins in the early teens, and by the late teens a pattern of steady dating develops. Steady dating is often followed by marriage.
What has been called the “new morality” among young people was a controversial development which started in the 1960s. Practiced largely by the young, this pattern accepts close relationships and even living together before marriage. However, many Americans do not approve of this behavior pattern and uphold a double standard in sexual behavior, which means that what is acceptable for young men is not for young women. On the other hand, some young people – both men and women – accept a single standard for both sexes before marriage.
Dating in America looks generally very casual to outsiders. For example, it is perfectly respectable for a young man to call up a young woman, introduce himself by telephone, and arrange a date. Usually they have a friend in common. It is equally acceptable for a friend to arrange a “blind date” that is a date between two young people who have not met before.
After their marriage the young couple is free to decide where to live. Most newlyweds set up their own household immediately. Most married people practice some kind of birth control. They plan the number of children they are going to have and when their children will be born. Birth-control information and family planning are easily available.
Today, according to the US Census Bureau, 59 percent of men and 47 percent of women between 18 and 24 depend on their parents despite all traditional patterns of behavior, at least for housing. This is part of a major shift in the middle class. Analysts cite a variety of reasons for this return to the nest. The marriage age is rising. A high divorce rate and a declining remarriage rate are sending economically pressured and emotionally battered young people to parental shelters. For some, the expense of an away-from-home college education has become so exorbitant that many students now attend local schools. Even after graduation young people find their wings clipped by skyrocketing housing costs.
Sharing the family home requires adjustment for all. There may be the hassles over bathrooms, telephones and privacy. Some families, however, manage the delicate balancing act.
The familiar structure in present-day America is the so-called “nuclear family.” It is unusual for members of the family other than the husband, wife, and children to live together. But the forgotten term “extended family” is coming back again with a different meaning. Now it means that there have appeared an increasing numbers of families that include half brothers and sisters, and stepmothers and stepfathers. There is a growing number of people who have been married three or even four times.
The reasons for re-marriage are: the comparative ease of divorce and the greatly lessened social stigma that is now carries; a romanticization of marriage that cannot live up to the long-term reality; a “flip of the dial” attitude that fosters moving on as soon as problems or ennui set in; the economic independence of women; a level of affluence that makes multiple families possible for some; an attitude among the so-called “me” generation that places fulfillment of personal needs ahead of compromise or sharing.
Census figures show that 50 percent of American families now end in divorce. Eighty-five percent of these divorced people remarry, usually within 5 years, with 60 percent of those marriages ending in divorce.
“I’ve changed my name so many times I don’t know who I am any more,” said Barbara Freedman, a Manhattan social worker, who has been married three times, having been widowed as well as divorced. She went on: “It’s disruptive. It’s hard to maintain a stable core of friends or pattern of life. So much of your structure is built around your marriage.”
Children of parents who marry several times are another concern. They suffer a loss of faith in relationships. Multiple marriages also aggravate sibling conflicts. Who is entitled to get college money if there isn’t enough to go around? How do you equitably settle the claims of children from the different marriages when the parent dies? What if the children from a marriage are left out of the will? So, re-marriage may create unforeseen difficulties for both parents’ and children’s lives.