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Executive Summary:

The Index of Family Belonging & Rejection

Patrick Fagan

The Index of Belonging (45%) and Rejection (55%) gives an instant read on the social health of America by measuring the proportion of American children who have grown up in an intact married family [See Appendix 2: Chart 1: Belonging and Rejection Indices for the US].

We have undertaken this study because, bad though it may be, the out-of-wedlock birth rate is not the key measure of family intactness. Rather what gives a much better read of how our American families are faring is what proportion of our children grow up in an intact home. When we take that measure (see Appendix 1 for the method) we find that:

  • Only 45% of U.S. teenagers have spent their childhood with an intact family, with both their birth mother and their biological father legally married to one another since before or around the time of the teenager’s birth.
  • 55% of teenagers live in families where their biological parents have rejected each other. The families with a history of rejection include single-parent families, stepfamilies, and children who no longer live with either birth parent but with adoptive or foster parents.
  • The Index uses data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (ACS). The ACS gathered complete data about family relationships—parent’s marital history and detailed parent-child relationships—for the first time in 2008. The large national sample allows for accurate estimates of the health of American families at the county, state and national level.
  • This report is the first of a series of annual indicator reports using ACS data to track the health of American families. Future reports will be able to use 3-year combined samples and make estimates for even smaller geographical units.

Detailed Analysis

The ACS survey finds that, of the 12.8 million teenagers aged 15-17 years old in the U.S. in 2008, 5.8 million were living with both married birth parents, and 7 million were living with one birth parent only, with a birth parent and a stepparent, with two cohabiting parents, or with neither parent (in adoptive or foster families, in group quarters, or on their own).

This report uses two levels of analysis. First, the large population sample in the survey permits an accurate estimate of the “state of the family” for the nation as a whole, for the four regions of the country, and for each of the 50 States and the District of Columbia. The sample also permits estimates for the major racial/ethnic groups at national and regional levels. Second, the ACS survey reveals the situation of teenagers aged 15-17 at a local level for the 26 most populous counties.

The intactness of family life for American teenagers varies across states and regions in association with average parent education, family income levels and the ethnic composition of the state or region. But there are also variations that cannot be explained by socioeconomic and ethnic factors. These variations have to do with the cultural commitment to traditional family life in particular geographic areas.