Brown Logo

The News Service
38 Brown Street / Box R
Providence RI 02912

401 863-2476
Fax 863-9595

Distributed September 30, 2003
Contact Kristen Cole

A dramatic half-century change
Census study: whites less likely than blacks to live with extended family

A hundred years of census data indicates whites are now less likely than blacks to live in extended-family households, a reversal from the earlier half of the century, according to a study published in the August Demography.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — White households changed dramatically during the last half of the century. Fewer and fewer adult children and elderly parents moved in with married couples, making white persons less likely than black persons to live in extended-family households, according to a new Brown-led study.

The research, published in a recent issue of Demography, looks at information on 166,000 households, controlling for income, from the U.S. censuses of 1900 through 1990. It focused primarily on 1940 to 1990, a period of American history that extends from the final years of the Great Depression to the recent past.

Unmarried adults with or without children who are living with no related adults are defined as living in simple households. A complex household is defined as a household that contains a family in which there are two or more adults who are related but not married – hence they could be expected to live separately. The most common modern scenario – 78 percent of complex households in 1990 – is adult children who live with their parents.

The broad shift in living arrangements in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century toward greater residential independence has been well documented. Adults increasingly live in simple households – either in two-adult, married-couple households or in one-adult households – with children or alone.

Differences in intergenerational living between white and black families began in the late 1960s, when white families experienced significant declines in intergenerational living while black families remained largely the same, according to the researchers.

In 1940, unmarried black adults were much less likely to live in complex family households than were unmarried white adults, with barely 50 percent of blacks living in such families, compared with nearly 70 percent of whites. By 1990, 39 percent of unmarried blacks, but less than 30 percent of unmarried whites, lived in complex family households.

While most current researchers on black-white family differences had assumed the greater complexity among black families was long-standing, these results suggest that interpretation is unlikely, said Frances K. Goldscheider, professor of sociology at Brown, who co-authored the study with Regina M. Bures of the University of Albany. The higher level of family extension that typifies black families is both relatively new and a trend that is not just limited to single-parent families.

This study found the high point for the percentage of extended families living together was in 1940, when 65 percent of unmarried adults lived in complex households. By 1960, that percentage had declined to about half, and to 29 percent in 1990. While in 1910, only 12 percent of widows aged 65 and older were living alone, in 1990 nearly 70 percent lived alone.

While census data does not include attitudinal measures to help researchers interpret the patterns and changes, previous research on the late twentieth-century living arrangements has shown that greater income has strongly reduced the likelihood that individuals will share housing. However the increase in simple households, which most researchers have interpreted as being related to a growing individualism and a taste for privacy, is apparently much more characteristic of the living arrangements of whites than blacks from 1940 to1990, according to this study.

Determining changing family patterns and the attitudes driving them is particularly challenging when there are racial or ethnic differences that can politicize the data, Goldscheider said. “The question is: Are families important?” she said. “We have an individualistic society and yet many of us have experienced help within our families and were grateful to be able to give help.”

Further research is needed to answer questions posed by the differences, such as how much of the difference reflects the higher mortality among blacks, which may leave young adults with fewer older relatives than were available to whites.

The study was supported by the Brown University Population and Studies Training Center, the National Institutes for Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institute on Aging.


News Service Home  |  Top of File  |  e-Subscribe  |  Brown Home Page