When Ally Moll had her daughter three years ago, she felt isolated. Her family lives in Florida and New York, and the girl’s father was out of the picture.
So the Madison woman took her plight to an online classifieds board: “I’m a new mom and I’m alone. Does anyone want to hang out?”
It led to connections with many other moms in her situation and monthly social gatherings that continue today, perhaps not surprising given that the last decade brought a dramatic increase in women-led families here and across Wisconsin.
In the state, the number of families headed by women with children and no husband increased 13 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to Census figures released Thursday. In Dane County, they’re up 23 percent. In Madison, it’s 22 percent.
The data show a further decline in the traditional nuclear family approach, with married couples with kids comprising 19 percent of total Wisconsin households in 2010, down from 24 percent in 2000.
The changes come even as population in the state, Dane County and Madison increased. Nuclear families dropped by 10 percent in the state since 2000, but increased slightly in Dane County and Madison — but at a lower rate than the general population increase for the county and city.
Moreover, the percentage change in the number of unmarried partners living together rocketed up — by more than 40 percent in the state and even more than that in the city and county.
The American family structure began a significant shift in the 1980s, and it continues today for a number of reasons, including that women generally are getting married much later or not at all, said Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for the national Council on Contemporary Families.
But she called on society to catch up to the changed reality.
“We still organize our school schedules and work policies on the assumption that every child has someone at home and every worker doesn’t have competing obligations,” she said.
The impact on children can be profound. Single-parent homes tend to be poorer, especially in the vital first five years of a child’s life, because there’s only one income and women tend to earn less than men.
“At the point when child development is at its most important is when families are at their poorest,” said Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.
But Coontz pointed out that despite the challenges posed by the changing family structure, children’s lives have actually improved nationally over the past three decades. She cited declining rates of youth violence, binge drinking and teen pregnancy as well as lower rates of domestic and child abuse.
“Clearly the gold standard is two cooperating parents in a lasting relationship,” she said. “Since that’s not always what you draw, we’re actually kind of surprised by the trends in youth.”
The new Census numbers also show the state continues to get grayer, with median age going from 36 in 2000 to 38.5 in 2010. Dane County and Madison didn’t age as much. The city’s median age barely increased, from 30.6 to 30.9 In the county, it increased from 33.2 to 34.4.
“You’re always going to have a younger population in communities with a university or a prison,” said David Egan-Robertson, demographer with the state Department of Administration.
The shift toward an older population shows in many of the family categories, as well. The average size of households and families declined statewide and locally, with a sizable jump in the number of households with at least one retirement-aged member.
An aging of Wisconsin presents opportunities and challenges, said Katherine Curtis, demographic specialist at UW-Madison. On the upside, older members of society tend to volunteer more and be more active in the community. On the other hand, their interests don’t always align with younger people, such as in funding education, which can create a rift and lead to younger people moving out with no one moving in to replace them.
“It basically becomes an issue of attracting new residents,” she said.