The Break-Up of the Nuclear Family - LifeMoves Skip to main content

Written By:  Tiffany Hong; LifeMoves Board Member, Fifteen year Volunteer, and Chief Administrative Officer for the Office of the President, Franklin Templeton Investments.

As we look at the close of Women’s History Month, the juxtaposition of families, particularly women, and children, is heightened.

Growing up in Asia in a family of 10 siblings with strong parents, our family unit was inclusive and protective of its extended core with all the siblings and their children.  In thinking back, I realized our ‘nuclear family unit’ kept us together when arriving in the United States as refugees in the late ’70s and early ’80s.  We received assistance from the government, the city, the local church, and the Human Needs Center in Novato.  We supported each other and stayed together as we moved into a new life.

Given my background, a strong sense of family, and being part of a multi-generational household, I am heartbroken when I meet our unhoused clients living on the street alone.  They are separated from their family either geographically or not able to connect for a variety of reasons.

This feeling of a disconnected family was brought up more deeply when I read an article in the Atlantic Magazine written by David Brooks.  It was titled, ‘The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake,’ and was widely read and reviewed.  One of the quotes that stood out in the article stated;

The family structure we’ve held up as the cultural ideal for the past half-century has been a catastrophe for many… We’ve moved from big, interconnected, and extended families, which helped protect the most vulnerable people in society from the shocks of life, to smaller, detached nuclear families (a married couple and their children)…. In 1850, 75 percent of Americans older than 65 lived with relatives; by 1990, only 18 percent did.

While the Brooks article did not associate the rise of the nuclear family with the homeless crisis, the connection is clear.  At LifeMoves, the average age of our single adults experiencing homelessness increases yearly and is now close to 50%.  Older adults who are homeless for the first time, and could never have imagined themselves in this situation, are now common in our shelters. And worse yet, on our streets.

With the cost of a one-bedroom apartment in most Silicon Valley and the peninsula areas exceeding $2,500/month, persons with limited financial resources frequently need help sustaining market-rate housing.  And older adults, who may have lived in the bay area their entire lives, are understandably reticent to leave for more affordable housing away from the community they have known.

While about 20% of our clients successfully reunite and move in with family members, we have had difficulty increasing this number.

The one commonality that almost every person experiencing homelessness shares is somewhere, a relative; every person we serve has a parent, a child, a sibling, a niece, a nephew, or an aunt or an uncle.  The LifeMoves Family Reunification Project aims to reunify clients with families in our shelters or on the streets.  We work to repair ‘burned bridges,’ and family members lean in to support their relatives/our clients.

The dark side of the nuclear family breaking up is its impact on the most vulnerable.  Families are much less likely to live in three-generation or extended family households than a generation or two ago.  In this landscape, providers of homeless services are often the service provider of the last result, the ultimate safety net.  We take this responsibility seriously, providing a safe, dignified, and supportive environment while our clients navigate their next steps, all too often without family support.

LifeMoves continues to work hard to house and work with our homeless clients to reconnect them with their families.  This is just one of the many reasons I am involved with LifeMoves.  They are addressing the fundamental need to shelter individuals in our housing-insecure communities.   My involvement started fifteen years ago as a volunteer and continues today as a Board Member, where I have enjoyed serving for the last four years.

Rebuilding family connections and ensuring our vulnerable populations are housed is critical.  I write this to bring the situation to light and look forward to your comments and engagement on this post.

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