Ozzie and Harriet, Alive and Well

David Blankenhorn, Washington Post, 6/11/1989

More than one-third of all families with preschool children are "Ozzie and Harriets": homemaker mothers married to breadwinner fathers. They comprise the nation's largest single category of families with young children. Among all mothers with preschoolers, well over half are either not employed at all or employed only part time. So despite the marked trend toward maternal employment and family diversity in recent decades, the less-than-10-percent claim simply does not reflect reality. If we count not just families with preschoolers, but all families with children under age 18, the basic picture does not change. While 44 percent of these mothers work full time, fully 35 percent are not in the labor force at all. Among married mothers in this category, only one-third are employed full time, year-round.

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Subjects: Family, Family structure, Family values

More by: David Blankenhorn

What is today's most-repeated statistic about the American family? Surely it is that "fewer than ten percent of families today fit the old 'Ozzie and Harriet' model of homemaker mother and breadwinner father." Who has not encountered this phrase – sometimes with "Leave it to Beaver" or "Norman Rockwell" as the preferred metaphor – countless times in newspapers and on television?

Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, whose new book is titled "Champion of the Great American Family," repeats it almost daily in speeches, press releases and television interviews. Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on families and children, cites it regularly as an argument for his new child care proposal.

Yet this dramatic statistic suffers from one defect. It ain't true. In fact, it is a false and pernicious claim – mathematically false, since the numbers don't add up, and socially pernicious, since it seeks to help one type of family by belittling another.

The 10-percenters use this statistic, to paraphrase Mark Twain, like a drunk uses a lamppost: more for support than illumination. They seek to label "traditional" families as anachronistic and virtually extinct, replaced by modern "working" families. But evidence from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, whose data on families are widely regarded as the nation's most comprehensive and reliable, does not support this claim.

More than one-third of all families with preschool children are "Ozzie and Harriets": homemaker mothers married to breadwinner fathers. They comprise the nation's largest single category of families with young children. Among all mothers with preschoolers, well over half are either not employed at all or employed only part time. So despite the marked trend toward maternal employment and family diversity in recent decades, the less-than-10-percent claim simply does not reflect reality.

If we count not just families with preschoolers, but all families with children under age 18, the basic picture does not change. While 44 percent of these mothers work full time, fully 35 percent are not in the labor force at all. Among married mothers in this category, only one-third are employed full time, year-round.

Of course these numbers, like all numbers, can be cooked to taste. The 10-percenters use two techniques. First they boost the number of "working" families by merging full-time and part-time maternal employment into one category of "working." They do this despite basic differences between the two types of employment, which relate directly to child rearing and family. Thus millions of mothers whose primary occupation is at-home child rearing, but who hold a job for some part of the week or year, are suddenly redefined as primarily "working" parents. That helps diminish the apparent importance of stay-at-home mothers, but far from enough to sustain the 10- percenters' claim.

The second cooking technique for shrinking the percentage of "traditional" families is even more distorting. It simply shifts the basis of comparison – not once, but twice. The logical way to measure the prevalence of "traditional" child rearing is to compare traditional families to other families with children. If we instead compare them to all other families, with or without children, we arbitrarily swell the "non-traditional" ranks with millions of newlyweds and empty-nesters. The 10-percenters do this, then go even further: They measure "Ozzie and Harriet" against the combined weight of every single household in the nation.

The key is to count what the Census Bureau terms "non-family" households – those that lack at least two residents related to one another by blood, marriage or adoption. Examples include widowed or single seniors, students rooming together, unmarried adults living alone or together, and myriad others. Of course, trends in all these types of household units can tell you interesting things about how America is changing demographically, but I they shed no useful light on the circumstances in which most children are reared today in the United States.

Thus America in 1987 contained 89.5 million total households, according to the Census Bureau. But only 8.9 million of these were "traditional" families: those with dependent children, homemaker mothers and breadwinner fathers. That's a little more than 9.9 percent – just small enough to edge under the 10 percent line. Yet ironically, if we use this method of calculation, we find that "traditional families" were less than one-third of all households even in the "traditional" 1950s!

So it is fairly simple, then, to shrink the "Ozzie and Harriets" from 33.3 percent – the largest group – into a quaint and negligible-sounding "fewer than 10 percent." The trick is either not understanding, or not caring about, basic demographic differences among families, or even about the distinction between families and non-family households.

But is all this more than a statistical quibble? Yes. We are a diverse nation. We have different types of families. Many parents today, including many mothers of young children, work outside the home in full-time jobs. They deserve support – new policies from both government and employers to help them balance the demands of family and work. National leaders, including Schroeder and Dodd, now champion their cause.

But all families deserve support, not just some. Parents who stay at home with children are not bad, or quaint or even unusual. The 10 percent message tells them they are. It tells them they are old-fashioned, outmoded, irrelevant. It tells millions of families that they hardly exist as a force in the society. It turns the nation's family policy debate – which should focus on strengthening all families – into special interest pleading that needlessly pits one type of family against another. One small step would begin the journey toward correcting this unfairness. The nation's two most prominent and frequent proponents of the under-10-percent idea should simply stop repeating it.

This article originally appeared here.

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