Whatever Happened to “Broken Homes”?

December 11, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Just think about the last time you heard someone use the term “broken home” or “single-parent household” to explain the misbehavior or misfortune of a person in your social circle.” That’s from a Times op-ed (here) by Christina Cross, a sociology post-doc at Harvard.

I think the last time I heard “broken homes” was before Ms. Cross was born. It’s so 1950s, with its judgmental pronouncement on families that didn’t look like “Ozzie and Harriet” or “Father Knows Best.” In the 70s, as more middle-class people were getting divorced, we needed a less value-laden term. Enter “single parent.”

(Google nGrams shows the frequency of words in books, so the change in the use of these terms in the media and everyday talk probably happens a year or two earlier.)

“Single-parent” is not as blatantly stigmatizing as “broken homes,” but when we hear it, we still think that something is wrong. The more important point that Ms.  Cross makes is that broken homes — the harmful outcomes they bring — may be much more consequential for Whites than for Blacks. I hope to get to that in a later post. But for now, I'll just point out that the sharp decline in mentions of “single-parent” starting in the early 90s tracks with the decline of teen crime and teen pregnancy in the same period.


Dan said...

Dr. Cross, no? Or just Cross as in typical academic convention?

Jay Livingston said...

I have never liked “Dr.” for people with only a PhD. If you can’t get third-party payments, you’re not a doctor. (I might make an exception for Dre, John, and Who.)