Portfolio: Economy alters family patterns

Appeared in Salem Statesman Journal Aug. 28, 2011

Oregonians are living in a broader range of family types than 10 years ago as the recession and other factors have caused living arrangements to adapt, according to new Census numbers.

For years there has been a trend away from a husband and wife raising their related children, but the 2010 Census shows that no single type of family is replacing it.

Marion and Polk counties have been swept up in a number in national trends, including more families with multiple generations, while still having higher rates of marriage and child bearing than the state as a whole.

“In general we have a larger proliferation of different types of families,” said Scott Coltrane, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon.

“You have fewer people getting married, people waiting longer to get married, more single-person households and then the interesting thing is childbearing and where children are living are in flux.”

Families are finding ways to get by, as they’ve done for some time, according to Linfield professor of sociology Amy Orr.

“Families adapt to the broader society, and that has happened throughout time,” Orr said. “If you want to understand the family at any particular point in time, you have to look at what is happening in the broader society.”

While the number of husband and wife homes grew about 4 percent in the state, it was slower than family households at around 9 percent in the past decade.

In Oregon, 48 percent of households belonged to married couples in 2010, compared to 52 percent in 2000. Marion and Polk counties were at 50 percent and 54 percent, 2010, a 3 percentage point drop in each case.

Of all families in Oregon, 448,329 had children in 2010, an increase of 2.8 percent from 2000. Marion saw an increase of about 5 percent, and Polk went up 15 percent.

Overall the percentage of homes with children dropped 10 percent in Oregon.

With those changes, other family types have filled in the gaps.

Unmarried partner homes increased 44 percent in Oregon in the past 10 years.

There was also a 39 percent increase across the state in grandchildren living in their grandparents’ homes.

The percent of single-person homes rose, as did the percent of homes with seven or more people, each by around 20 percent.

Much of this can be tied to the economy, Orr said.

She pointed out the decision to avoid marriage (median age at first marriage was 28.2 for men and 26.1 for women in 2010) and children isn’t necessarily new.

“With more and more parents deciding not to have children, there was another time in history where this happened at a high rate as well, and that was the Great Depression,” she said. “People said — and this sounds harsh — that children were economic liabilities and we just can’t do that.”

Marion and Polk counties have bucked this particular trend.

A USA Today study found that 95 percent of counties in the U.S. saw a drop in the number of people 18 or younger from 2000 to 2010. Both

Marion and Polk saw an increase.

Overall, Marion has the largest percentage of its population younger than 5 in Oregon’s 36 counties at 7.5 percent. Polk is 10th at 6.5 percent.

Both counties saw an increase in number of grandchildren living with a grandparent. Polk went up 46 percent and Marion rose 52 percent.

Oregon overall saw a 39 percent increase.

Overall, around 4 percent of Marion homes have three or more generations, fourth-highest in the state. Polk was just above the state rate of 3 percent, at 3.18.

Although some people suggest that the increase in the state’s Hispanic population may be moving those numbers higher — the Census did find that Hispanic families in Oregon were more likely to have multi-generational homes — Coltrane said his research has found it tied more with economic factors.

“Some of the characterizations are that people prefer to live in multi-generational households, but most of the survey data is that they don’t necessarily prefer to live together, it’s an adjustment to economic hard times,” he said.

Orr said while the changes are unwelcome to some, for the most part it’s just the natural fluctuation of human living patterns.

“Based on what we’ve seen and historical trends, the family fluctuates like this on and off, but we tend to look back to the ’50s as the golden age, which is really a rare time in history,” she said.

“That was a very rare time, but if you look at what was going on in society that made sense, coming back from war, having more children,” Orr said. “If we look at the trends in the family, that probably doesn’t work as well today as it did back then.”

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