/ Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Families in the United States at 2000


A variety of disciplines that specifically address families and family issues are viewed from the perspective of how each contributes to an integrated view of the family. The author also offers suggestions for new, multidisciplinary, and collaborative research agendas for families.

Key Words: family demography, child welfare, family policy, racial disparity, family research

    1. Marguerite Barratt, Ph.D., is Director of the Institute for Children, Youth, and Families (ICYF) at Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824. The web site for ICYF is: http://www.icyf.msu.edu. Dr. Barratt may be reached at: mbarratt@msu.edu.return to text

    Increasingly, the good work being done for and about families is multidisciplinary and collaborative. An impressive number of disciplines are closely studying issues facing American families in 2000 and in the future, each contributing significantly to a more highly integrated view of the family and the challenges families must address.

    Consolidating Our Thinking about Today's Families

    Sociology and Demography give us a statistical picture of American family at 2000; the United States is at some very important points of transition (Washington & Andrews, 1998). We are an aging country, with more than 50,000 individuals over 100 years old and a birth rate that has moved below the replacement level. There are great discrepancies between the rich and the poor, and the segment of American society with the greatest concentration of poverty is young children. In fact, 25 percent of young children (up to 6 years old) and their families live at or below the poverty level, and when household incomes up to 185 percent of poverty are considered (what is called near poverty) 44 percent of the young children under 6 are living in poverty or near poverty (Bennett & Li, 1998). These statistics on near poverty vary by state with a few states having less than 30 percent of young children living in poverty or near poverty and a few states having over 60 percent of young children living in poverty or near poverty. The rate of extreme poverty for young children, that is, less than 50 percent of the poverty level, has doubled in the last 20 years — growing from 6 percent to 12 percent.

    In addition to the aging of America and the high levels of child poverty, the United States is increasingly characterized by racial and ethnic diversity,with 15 percent of the almost 4 million infants born each year being African American and 18 percent Hispanic (National Center for Health Statistics, 2000). Projections indicate that by 2010, the states of California, Texas, New York, and Florida will have more children of color than white (Washington & Andrews, 1998).

    American families can be characterized by their living arrangements and formal family structures. In the United States today, 25 percent of the households consist of only one individual living alone (Washington & Andrews, 1998). These individuals may be part of families, but they are not currently living with a family. The traditional nuclear family—two parents and their child or children—account for only 25% of the households in the United States. The remainder of households include families without children and single parent families. In fact, in the United States today, about one out of three infants is born to single unmarried parents (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, 1998).

    From the perspectives of public health, medicine and nursing, the federal publication Healthy People 2010 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [DHHS], 2000) provides a wealth of information about the conditions of individual Americans in 2000 and national health goals for the next 10 years. This document compiles national level indicators about the health in 28 focus areas. The ten leading health indicators include physical activity; overweight and obesity; tobacco use; substance abuse; responsible sexual behavior; mental health; injury and violence; environmental quality; immunization; and access to health care. The authors suggest two national goals—(a) "Increase quality and years of healthy life" (p. 8), and (b) "Eliminate health disparities" (p. 11). From these focus areas and goals, we can infer a lot about families. Particularly in the case of maternal and child health, there are several indicators that suggest the well being of families around the birth of a child, including infant mortality (7.2%), prematurity (7.6%) and prenatal care beginning in the first trimester of pregnancy (83%). Each of these is targeted for improvement by 2010.

    Another important source of information about Americans is the compendium on early childhood education from the National Association for the Education of the Young Children, Children of 2010 (Washington & Andrews, 1998: 1). This document reports the outcomes of a series of meetings of 40 careful thinkers to consider the "issues involved in making democracy work for the next generation of children." They offer a vision for 2010 in which every child is nurtured to his or her full potential by a caring and supportive community. Using lessons from the environmental movement and the anti-smoking movement, they suggest a variety of advocacy and empowerment strategies to move in the direction of their vision.

    Family Science, Human Development, and Psychology are among the core social sciences focusing on individual and family development. Included in these disciplines are the clinicians working in Marriage and Family Therapy, Clinical Psychology, and Counseling Psychology. The family context matters for children. Data suggest that children living in single parent families are more likely to experience poverty and to be delayed in development and skills when compared to children living in two-parent families (Amato, 2000). Moreover, children who experience divorce, particularly in families without high levels of conflict, often show fairly long term effects of divorce. These findings suggest a real need for scholarly knowledge about building and maintaining adult relationships.

    The Child Welfare perspective, particularly reflected in the discipline of Social Work, flags for us some of the concerns about child well-being that arise at the level of families, communities and policies. Some of these child welfare issues are particularly well expressed in the advocacy work of Children's Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org) and its annual publication, The State of America's Children Yearbook (1999). Also useful is the work of the Annie E. Casey Foundation (www.aecf.org) and its support for the annual publication of the national Kids Count Data Book: State Profiles of Child Well-Being (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1999a). This foundation also supports local versions for each state that contain reports of child well-being indicators for each county and supplementary reports focusing on specific issues such as the well-being of infants (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1999b) or teenage sexuality (Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1998). The picture that emerges from these publications includes current family crises about health care, child care, and violence. Of particular concern is the increase in abuse and neglect experienced by children in the United States—3 million cases annually of suspected abuse or neglect, half a million children living in foster care, and 5 million children living in a household without a parent (Children's Defense Fund, 1999).

    Industrial and Labor Relations and Business are disciplines that focuses not only on the operation of businesses, but also on the intersection between businesses and families. Work family issues are particularly important as the number of hours that individuals work increases and also as the percentage of adults work, especially those in families with young children (Carnegie Task Force on Meeting the Needs of Young Children, 1994). Thus, the care of children and the care of the elderly that were accomplished within families in the 20th century must increasingly be contracted outside the family.

    Relative to Political Science, the focus of most policy is at the level of the individual. Traditionally, we have looked at individual level outcomes to determine the impact of policy changes. For example, does participation in the federal Special Supplementary Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) lead to higher rates of immunization for children? Dr. Karen Bogenschneider (1999) and Dr. Theodora Ooms (1995) have been instrumental in moving policy thinking from a focus on individuals to a family perspective on policy making. Welfare reform codified in the Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996 and implemented through Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) is fairly unique in that policies encouraging employment by parents also provide for the care of children—a two-generation approach that moves us a bit closer to a family perspective in policy making.

    Nutrition as a field also focuses largely at the level of the individual, but feeding behavior is clearly embedded in the social matrix of families, communities and policies. For example, a crucial early family feeding behavior like breast feeding is influenced by fathers and grandmothers, by the practices of community hospitals and employers, and by policy issues such as parental leave and the priorities and practices of the federal WIC program. The nutrition of children is influenced by family knowledge about feeding and by the availability of food; in the United States, billions of pounds of food are wasted at the same time that children go hungry (Tableman, 1998-99).

    Some provocative and innovative thinking from the perspective of Anthropology is summarized in Dr. Sarah Hardy's (1999), Mother Nature: A History of Mothers, Infants, and Natural Selection. Her careful review of animal models, hunter/ gathering societies, and human physiology suggests that humans probably evolved with communal rearing of infants. Thus, a handful of alloparents or allomothers typically were involved in the care of each child. The prolonged period of human dependency, such that even through age 18 families are sheltering and feeding their offspring, suggests that mothers will necessarily need help with rearing. Who are these helpers? Traditionally they included female kin—siblings, aunts, and grandmothers. In fact, it has been suggested that part of the adaptive value of menopause is to terminate a woman's reproductive years so that she will be able to carefully rear to adulthood all her offspring and to help with the rearing of her grandchildren.

    Economists focus their attention at the level of the individual and the firm. However, this information about individuals and firms provides a very significant context for families. The current prosperity in the United States is reflected in a flourishing stock market that has increased the value of many individuals' pensions, and perhaps allowed earlier retirements. At the same time, the solvency of Social Security may depend on rolling back retirement ages from 65 to 70 or even older. These economic forces provide a context for American families: Senior families make their work and family decisions in this context, and young families are also significantly impacted by their economic context. Families with young children are the families who are most likely to be poor because they are at the beginning of their earning potential. In fact, the majority of young children living in poor families live with at least one person who is employed (National Center for Children in Poverty, 1996).

    For understanding families in the United States today, the field of Criminal Justice also provides an important perspective. For example, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world except for South Africa, and because of significant racial disparities, minorities are significantly over represented in the criminal justice system and significantly over represented in incarcerated populations. Specifically, one third of black young men (18 to 34 years old) have had contact with the criminal justice system (Washington & Andrews, 1998). The growing incarceration of girls and women has also lead to increasing numbers of children in foster care or in the care of relatives. Increasing domestic violence is also a significant aspect of the changing landscape of families.

    This list of disciplines is necessarily incomplete. Others might include those in Communications who study interpersonal communications such as communications between partners and parent-child communications (for example, Fitzpatrick & Vangelisti, 1995). The work in Community Development and Urban Planning provides a context for families and housing is emerging as a significant family issue.

    This multidisciplinary review of the various perspectives on families in the United States has been designed to whet your appetite and to suggest sources for further data and details. As I indicated at the start of this manuscript, the good work is multidisciplinary and collaborative. Accordingly, I suggest that researchers and practitioners interested in family issues find partners from some of these disciplines. For example, the demographer and economist may provide significant information about the context of our work, and the perspective from nursing may complement that brought by the psychologist. In fact, an increasing number of family questions require multidisciplinary approaches, and funding agencies recognize this need.

    Forging Links between Varying Perspectives

    The Institute for Children, Youth and Families (www.icyf.msu.edu) at Michigan State University is a multidisciplinary institute that explicitly works to bring together these perspectives on families. In this way, the disciplinary perspectives can inform one another and the scope and impact of our work can be larger than what is possible from any single disciplinary perspective. The Institute offers to our on-campus and off-campus partners an infra structure in support of research and outreach. From this perspective, I offer some suggestions about emerging research approaches.

    Families as Researchers.

    The work on dissemination of innovation (e.g., Bunch, 1982; Gladwell, 2000) uses data from the dissemination of agricultural practices to suggest that families can be their own researchers. For example, an agricultural family can determine the added yield from a new strain of corn. Families can also do their own social science research as they figure out exactly what contexts lead to disruptive behavior by challenging children (Kaiser & Rasminsky, 1999). Families may track the relation between their eating and their weight gain to confront obesity, calculate the savings from buying the store brand of cereal, or determine how long it will take to save for a down payment.

    Program Developers as Researchers.

    Program developers are also their own researchers. For example, the processes of continuous quality improvement and formative evaluation require an ongoing examination of the effectiveness of the organization (Brown & Reed, 1998-99). United Way (1996) has been instrumental in moving service delivery programs towards evaluation. Their use of the logic model to set up a structure for the evaluation of short-term, mid-range and long term outcomes has moved service providers towards becoming researchers. Foundations, state government and other funders of services to families are increasingly asking for evaluation so that they can be assured that their money is being well spent.

    Communities as Researchers.

    With the devolution of responsibilities from the level of state government to more local decision making, units of government are using locally-collected data to inform their decisions. For example, state level Kids Count publications (for example, Zehnder Merrell & Corey's 1999 Kids Count in Michigan Data Book) provide county level statistics on indicators of child and family well-being that are used in county-level human service decision making. Statistics on abuse and neglect can, for example, inform primary and secondary prevention work with families. Statistics on preterm birth can inform efforts to provide prenatal care. Child Death Review Teams in each county determine causes of death and use the results to inform prevention efforts.

    Universities as Research Partners.

    Action research that is jointly constructed by university researchers and the communities themselves has great potential to drive change. For example, Dr. David Riley's (1997) research in Wisconsin helped 69 communities create their own survey about what elementary school children were doing after school. This locally-constructed data drove local change. In these 69 communities, 92 school age child care programs were established that served over 6,000 children and created over 400 new jobs. This is very different from traditional social science research constructed on university campuses, and it has a high potential for impact. By focusing on actionable variables, that is, things with the potential to be changed, and by jointly constructing research questions and research methodologies, research assumes new relevance.

    In conclusion, our understanding of American families at 2000 is enriched by the multidisciplinary perspectives outlined here. We will build this understanding through the research done by families, the programs that serve them, and the communities themselves. We will learn the most and have the biggest potential for change by linking these local efforts with a multidisciplinary and collaborative university research agenda.


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