Center for American Progress

RELEASE: The Federal Government’s Definition of a ‘Family’ Is Outdated and Exclusionary, CAP Analysis Finds
Press Release

RELEASE: The Federal Government’s Definition of a ‘Family’ Is Outdated and Exclusionary, CAP Analysis Finds

Washington, D.C. — A new report from the Center for American Progress sheds light, for the first time, on the ways in which the federal government has failed to adapt to modern understandings of what constitutes a family.

Even as societal understandings have evolved in the intervening decades since the concept of a “nuclear family” was first popularized, federal statutes have lagged far behind. Less than 20 percent of all U.S. families are comprised of two married parents with at least one child below the age of 18, and the marriage rate continues to fall. More than a third of all children in the United States have lived with a relative other than a parent or sibling before the age of 18.

The decline in “nuclear families” coincides with an increased acceptance in the idea of “chosen families”—relationships whose bonds are no less deep or significant than those formed via a marriage or an adoption. And yet, these “chosen families” remain largely unrecognized in federal statutes and federal law, putting millions of Americans in harm’s way. Failing to recognize a broader definition of what constitutes a family member can leave individuals cut off from important benefits and programs, for instance.

Narrow, noninclusive definitions of family can be particularly harmful to the LGBTQ community. Many children who identify as LGBTQ are met with rejection from their biological families, contributing to them being 120 percent more likely to experience homelessness than non-LGBTQ children. And even though marriage equality is the law of the land, LGBTQ couples who live together are more likely to be unmarried than opposite-sex couples who live together.

“What constitutes a ‘family’ in federal statutes has not evolved to reflect the diversity of this country’s families, and this needs to change,” said Frank J. Bewkes, a former policy analyst for the LGBTQ Research and Communications Project at the Center for American Progress and author of the report. “Family, including chosen family, is a core part of the human experience. But it transcends blood, legal, and housing ties. This is especially true in the LGBTQ community. When statutory definitions of family are too narrow to encompass lived realities, real families—both LGBTQ and not—are rendered invisible and excluded from benefits or services they should have access to by law.”

The report provides, for the first time, an extremely thorough review of federal statutes in the U.S. Code defining “family.” It concludes that an overwhelming majority of these definitions are unnecessarily narrow and finds that there is room to broaden the definition of “family” across the board.

Read the report: “Expanding Definitions of Family in Federal Laws” by Frank J. Bewkes.

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