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Two powerful forces make American families more fragile

Published: Tuesday, July 29 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Tuesday, July 29 2014 2:15 p.m. MDT

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The American family has become less stable because of two shifts that have combined to batter its once-solid foundations, according to a family expert.

"Over the past 40 years, the geography of family life has been destabilized by two powerful forces pulling in opposite directions and occasionally scraping against each other, much like tectonic plates," wrote Stephanie Coontz, professor at Evergreen State College and director of research for the Council on Contemporary Families, in an opinion piece this week for The New York Times.

"One is the striking progress toward equality between men and women. The other is the equally striking growth of socioeconomic inequality and insecurity," she wrote.

She describes the internal workings of families as "more egalitarian," with more women working outside the home for pay than in years past and more men helping out within the home as well. Women now have more security in the workforce, including more equal pay and stature and more legal rights, she said.

"But while the sexes have become more equal, society as a whole has become far less, producing especially deep losses for young men," she said. "In 1969, by the time men reached age 25, three-quarters were earning wages that could support a family of four above the poverty line. By 2004, it took until age 30 for the same percentage of men to reach this income level. And while in 1969 only 10 percent of men ages 30 to 35 were still low earner, by 2004, almost a quarter of men in that age range remained low earners."

Andrew J. Cherlin, sociologist and author of "The Marriage-Go-Round," said earlier this year that just finding better jobs for young adults, especially males, would help families that are just starting out. His comments were reported in an article published jointly by The Atlantic and the Deseret News.

"Experts have been surprised by the real drop in divorce among the college-educated, who still can get good jobs. (Cherlin) said young people need more job training opportunities and apprenticeships, especially if they’re not college-bound," the article stated. "Making sure tax policy doesn’t discourage marriage and providing a modest earned income tax credit for disadvantaged childless young adults would also encourage formation of stable relationships."

In "The Negative Effects of Instability on Child Development," one of the Low-Income Working Families Fact Sheets series for the Urban Institute, Heather Sandstrom and Sandra Huerta identified five types of instability that impact children, including economic instability, family instability, employment instability, residential instability and instability in places outside the home like child care or school.

The Council on Contemporary Families plans to publish a more in-depth look at family instability later this week.

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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