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Discover Sociology by William J. Chambliss & Daina S. Eglitis

Discover Sociology by William J. Chambliss & Daina S. Eglitis

Author:William J. Chambliss & Daina S. Eglitis [Chambliss, William J.]
Language: eng
Format: azw3
Publisher: SAGE Publications
Published: 2018-11-18T16:00:00+00:00


U.S. Families Yesterday and Today

The traditional nuclear family often appears in popular media and political debates as a nostalgic embodiment of values and practices to which U.S. families should return. Historian Stephanie Coontz (2000, 2005), who has written about the history of U.S. families, points out that the highly venerated traditional nuclear family model is, in fact, a fairly recent development.

Consider that in the preindustrial era, when the U.S. economy was primarily agricultural, families were key social and economic units. Households often included multiple generations and sometimes boarders or farmworkers. Families were typically large, and children were valued for their contributions to a family’s economic viability, participating along with the other members in productive activities. Marriages tended to endure; divorce was neither normative nor especially easy to secure. At the same time, average life expectancy was about 45 years (Rubin, 1996). As life spans increased, divorce also became more common, replacing death as the factor most likely to end a marriage.

The period of early industrialization shifted these patterns somewhat, not least because it was accompanied by urbanization, which brought workers and their families to cities for work. The family’s economic function declined; some children worked in factories, but the passage of child labor laws and the rise of mass public schooling made this increasingly uncommon (although, according to one source, at the end of the 19th century, a quarter of textile workers in the American South were children, whose cheap labor was a boon to employers; Wertheimer, 1977). Over time, children became more of an economic cost than a wage-earning benefit; in a related development, families became smaller and began to evolve toward the nuclear family model.

The basic nuclear family model, with a mother working in the private sphere of the home while focused on child rearing and a father working in the public sphere for pay, evolved among middle-class families in the late 19th century. It was far less common among the working class at this time; working-class women, in fact, often toiled in the homes of the new middle class as housekeepers and nursemaids.

Coontz (2000) points out that, as the popular imagination suggests, the mother-as-homemaker and father-as-breadwinner model of the nuclear family is most characteristic of the widely idealized era of the 1950s. The post–World War II era witnessed a range of interconnected social phenomena, including suburbanization supported by federal government initiatives to build a network of highways and encourage home ownership, a boom in economic growth and wages that brought greater consumption power along with technologies that made the home more comfortable and convenient, and a “baby boom,” as a wave of pregnancies delayed by the years of war came to term.

Although prosperity and technology brought new opportunities to many, mass suburbanization largely left behind minorities, including Black Americans, who were not given full access to the government’s subsidized mortgages (including mortgages subsidized through the G.I. Bill, which was theoretically available to all returning veterans of World War II) and were often left behind in segregated, devalued neighborhoods.



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