Traditional husband-wife households have been declining on Long Island for decades, a trend fueled in part by high divorce rates and greater acceptance of single-parent families.

Forty years ago, married couples with children made up more than half of all households on Long Island, at 51.8 percent. Census figures released last week showed that percentage has plunged to 27.1.

The number of households in Nassau and Suffolk counties headed by single mothers, meanwhile, increased nearly 11 percent, to 47,003, in the past decade alone, the 2010 census found.


The "new normal"

The trends reflect the "new normal," said Susanne Bleiberg Seperson, director of Dowling College's Center for Intergenerational Policy and Practice.

"It's not just mother, father, children," she said, alluding to a rise nationwide in single moms and dads, unmarried and same-sex couples, and adults simply choosing to live alone.

On Long Island, for every five married couples with kids there's a single mom -- a major change from a generation ago.

A recent French study found that a quarter of U.S. children are now being raised by a single parent, the highest rate among 27 industrialized nations surveyed.

When it comes to the changing American family, the real issue should be whether children are growing up in healthy, supportive environments -- not how the household is structured, said Madeline Seifer, director of Hofstra University's Marriage and Family Therapy Clinic.

"I wouldn't think there's necessarily cause for concern if the children are getting quality parenting," Seifer said. "You can have an intact family with Mom and Dad and 2.5 kids, and if there's strife in the family . . . then I worry about that family.

"If you have a single parent raising the same 2.5 children and the kids are covered during the day when Mom is at work and Mom is spending quality time with them in a healthy, normal environment, then those children can do just fine," she said.

The downside is potential fallout from unstable families and "fatherlessness," ranging from crime and substance abuse to academic woes, said Seth Forman, chief planner for the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

There's a public policy concern -- and added costs to taxpayers -- when children don't receive the kind of support and guidance at home that's "traditionally associated with two-parent families," Forman said.


Emerging trends

Many families may start out traditional, but "they're not ending up that way," Seifer said, pointing to the nation's high divorce rate, hovering at roughly 50 percent.

Other factors cited by experts include a lingering recession that has led some people to delay having children and pushed young adults off Long Island in search of careers and home ownership.

Then there's growing acceptance of unmarried people living together and alternative lifestyles, including same-sex relationships.

Census data to be released later this year will, for the first time, provide numbers for same-sex couples. So far, only information on "unmarried partner" households is available. On Long Island, they've increased by 33 percent in the past decade: from 35,291 to 47,059.

While the percentage of single-mother households, compared to all households, edged up slightly, from 4.6 percent in 2000 to 5 percent in 2010, the number of single-mother households increased 10.6 percent. Experts expect those ranks to grow in the future.

Long Island households headed by single dads were a tiny fraction of all households last year, at 1.7 percent.


Calls for more support

A study last month by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that while more single parents in the United States worked than in the other nations, they faced higher rates of poverty.

Child welfare advocates responding to the research said the time has come to boost support for families, such as early education, child care and paid parental leave.

State and local governments, however, are grappling with declining revenue and budget cuts, hoping just to keep basic family services intact.

"New York is creating efficiencies in government in order to serve children and families during these difficult economic times," said a spokeswoman for the state Office of Children & Family Services.

Phil Mickulas, chief operating officer for the Mineola-based Family and Children's Association, warned that further erosion of government and philanthropic support for family programs would be harmful, especially during an economic downturn.

"Stressors are being increased on everyone, but presumably on single parent-led families even more," he said.

Tania Reyes, 34, of Bay Shore, a single mom raising two boys, is "financially stressed" -- even with a full-time job running a program at the Child Care Council of Suffolk County.

"I wish rent was less expensive," said Reyes, who pays $1,375 a month for a two-bedroom apartment.

At the same time, she said parenting pressures are enormous.

"The most difficult aspect of being a single mom is scheduling," she said. "I wish there were two or three of me."

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