Virginia Rutter discusses “Families as They Really Are”

(Photo by Brad Leuchte)

FSU Sociology Professor Virginia Rutter presented the U.S.’s shifting family forms over the past five decades to a packed audience at the CELTSS (The Center of Excellence in Learning, Teaching, Scholarship and Service) sponsored Lyceum Lecture on Sept. 24.

The change in parental employment led to a $1.7 trillion decrease in nationwide output. Rutter said this figure is “roughly equivalent to combined U.S. spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in 2012.”

Rutter’s presentation focused on the constantly evolving family forms found in America and how they are changing the nation.

“I’ve done research and writing on a lot of topics relating to family and a lot of writing advocacy on family policies and economics,” Rutter said.

She added that the images found in her 2015 edited volume of “Families as They Really Are” “changed my mind and my work.”

Images of diverse family forms were shown to the audience – parents holding their adopted child, multi-racial married couples, same-sex couples with their children – helped put faces to the family forms in America that are often ignored or marginalized in the United States.

“Nostalgia and traditional values,” Rutter said, often create “struggles around the various issues that come up around families.” These struggles, she said, “do not just cloud popular discourse, it can cloud academic discourse … when we talk about families.”

Though many Americans may still cling to the nostalgia of a traditional family, the graphs presented by Rutter showed a country that has become increasingly more diverse over the last half century.

In a graph titled “Work-Family Living Arrangements of Children, 1960 & 2012, Age 0-14,” the drastic change in family forms was highlighted. On the left side of the graph was the breakdown of children’s families in 1960 and on the right side the more diverse family forms found in 2012.

“If you don’t have time for anything else,” Rutter said, “look at this image.”

In 1960, 65 percent of families had married parents where only the father was employed. The second largest percentage was married parents, both employed, which was 18%.

“So you have a whole bunch of people in one kind of family form,” Rutter said.

In comparison, the right side of the graph showed the majority of families in 2012 were married parents who were both employed (34 percent), followed by married parents, father only employed (22 percent). The increase in the former and the decrease in the latter were not the only major changes to families in 2012. Families headed by formerly married mothers, grandparents serving as parents, single fathers and mothers who have never been married all showed growth in the colorful graph. Families with parents who were both unemployed decreased since 1960.

“On the other side you have a rainbow,” she said in reference to the multiple colored bars on the right side of the graph, each denoting a different type of family form. “People live in a lot of different kinds of families. Instead of two-thirds, one-in-five kids live in this … “Leave It To Beaver” kind of family.”

Rutter predicted what perhaps many Americans may ask when confronted with this information. “‘Well, are we safe? Are our children safe with these changing family forms?’” She asked rhetorically.

A simulation had been run by economists, she said, which showed what would happen if things hadn’t changed since 1979.

“In 1979, men were working a lot more hours than women were … In 2007 you can see, interestingly, men are working less and women are working more,” she said.

The presentation concluded with a slide show, which showed diverse family forms, many of which included the families of FSU faculty and staff.