Traditional households with a husband and wife raising their children are no longer the majority in South Carolina.
Of the state’s 1.8 million households, 47.2 percent are made of a husband and wife living under the same roof, according to the 2010 Census statistics. Ten years ago, there were 1.5 million households in the state, and 51.1 percent of them were headed by a married man and woman.
South Carolina is following a trend that has spread across the nation. The traditional concept of a family is changing, whether it’s single parents raising children, gay couples sharing a home or men and women who move in together but are not married.
“It just doesn’t exist like it used to,” said Bobby Bowers, director of the S.C. Office of Research and Statistics. “You just can’t believe how much it has changed.”
In Richland County, traditional married couple households fell below the 50 percent mark years ago, while the majority of Lexington County’s households remain a traditional husband-wife set up.
The census statistics do not offer an explanation of why households are changing, and theories abound as to why it is happening. But the change is important to note because family structure affects important decisions such as health insurance coverage, end-of-life decisions, estate planning and child custody, according to the authors of a book about the definition of family, “Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family.”
Lala Carr Steelman, chairman of USC’s sociology department, is one of the book’s co-authors. There are many definitions of family whether they come from scholars, the judicial system or census questionnaires, Steelman said. She and her co-authors wanted to know how Americans defined family and set out to poll them about that question.
“What we’re finding is people are growing increasingly more flexible in how they define what a family is,” she said. “The main thing is alternative family forms are expanding at a very high rate and acceptance of them is expanding.”
Pop culture is contributing to the acceptance with television shows like Modern Family, which features an extended family that includes a multicultural marriage, a traditional husband-wife family of five and a gay couple raising a daughter.
In tracking acceptance of gay families, the authors addressed 11 other types of living arrangements.
“There’s more of a menu to choose from,” she said.
All sorts of factors are contributing to the trend of nontraditional households, Steelman said. Widows and widowers are living longer. Young women prefer to stay single as they establish careers. The divorce rate is up. Same-sex marriages are more acceptable as are out-of-wedlock births. And more male and female couples are choosing to live together without getting married, Steelman said.
“It used to be called shacking up, and it was unacceptable so you got married,” she said.
But even traditionally conservative South Carolina is growing more tolerant.
Debi Schadel, 37, and her boyfriend, Derek Riley, 41, have lived together for nine years in their Columbia home. The two moved into together for the same reason married couples do, Schadel said.
Although people constantly ask when will they marry, no one seems to have a problem with the couple’s relationship, Schadel said.
“I tell people that things are going fine the way they are,” she said. “We’re just chugging along.”