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The Changing American Family - Sociological and Demographic Perspectives.

This book follows the growing popular trend in the academic press of publishing works prepared for small specialized conferences. The twelve papers here were originally commissioned for presentation at the "Demographic Perspectives on the American Family: Patterns and Prospects" conference sponsored by the Department of Sociology at the State University of New York at Albany. Conference volumes often contain chapters of inconsistent quality that are disjointed with respect to perspective and methodological approach. Editors Scott South and Stewart Tolnay, however, have prepared a conference book that does not suffer from these inherent difficulties. The papers collected by South and Tolnay reflect an intriguing mix of historical and contemporary views on the changing dynamics of American family life. Although, most of the authors represented are academic sociologists and historians, the empirical techniques and methods of analysis will be quite familiar to those trained in economics. In fact, several authors rely heavily on ideas first put forth by Gary Becker and his followers.

The book is organized into three sections, each containing articles based on a central primary theme. The first section contains three chapters dealing with historical issues of American family formation and structure. Steven Ruggles and Ron Goeken present a long-run analysis of multigenerational families which reveals the expected significant differences between black and white households. Further racial differences are analyzed by Nancy Landale and Tolnay in their chapter on the timing of marriages in the rural south in the early years of this century. Perhaps the most interesting chapter for economists in this section is the one written by Amy Holmes and Maris Vinovskis on the effects of the Federal Pension Program for Civil War Widows. As one of the first large-scale social transfer payment programs, this chapter presents an interesting historical case study of the impact of such programs on living arrangements and family behavior.

The second section of the book concentrates on current issues in marriage and cohabitation. Neil Bennett, David Bloom, and Patrica Craig examine contemporary trends in the timing of first marriages. Their results indicate that marriage patterns are complex for all racial groups but, not surprisingly, are significantly dependent on educational attainment and economic status. Robert Schoen and Dawn Owens discuss the declining popularity of early marriages and the growing trend in cohabitation which increasingly does not lead to eventual marriage. Their results support the view of Ronald Rindfuss and Audrey VandenHeuvel who argue that cohabitation is not a substitute for marriage, but rather an "extension of singlehood." This perspective is based on data which reveal cohabitors are more like single persons than married persons with respect to a large array of demographic and social characteristics. However, in another chapter James Sweet and Larry Bumpass report findings from the National Survey of Families and Households which indicate that 80% of cohabiting couples "intend" to marry their current partners and a majority of those that do not expect to marry their partners do not expect to marry anyone. Making use of the same data, the concluding chapter of this section by South examines the determinants of the expected benefits from marriage. The expected benefits of marriage are obviously found to vary according to age, sex, and socioeconomic status. Across all groups, young black males report the lowest expected return to marriage. This result has important implications regarding the formation and structure of the contemporary black American family.

The concluding third section of the book includes four chapters focusing on issues surrounding the roles of parents and children. Two chapters, one by Frank Furstenberg and Kathleen Harris and the other by Jay Teachman, explore the relationship of absentee fathers with their children. Both chapters present evidence of the significant decline in parental support, financial and non-monetary, that occurs after divorce or marital separation. The authors suggest that dramatic changes in the traditional parent-child relationship will result as the institution of marriage evolves over time. In a slightly different vein, Arland Thorton offers an interesting study of intergenerational behavioral patterns within intact families. He finds that some behavioral traits such as early marriage and premarital pregnancy may be linked across generations. The final chapter by Linda Waite and Frances Coldscheider presents an empirical study of the division of labor within the home. The analysis makes use of the National Longitudinal Surveys of Young Women and Mature Women. Their results indicate that the husband's share of household production has increased in response to a reduction in the share of work performed by children. The authors contend that this trend will continue as modern marriages become more egalitarian.

Though primarily written for the academic sociologist, many economists will find something of interest in this collection of papers. The issues and trends discussed throughout the volume are directly related to several areas of research pursued by labor economists. As a whole, the book suggests that there is fertile ground yet to be plowed for interdisciplinary work on the economics of marriage and family.

Paul W. Grimes Mississippi State University
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Author:Grimes, Paul W.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1994
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