The American Jewish Family – A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the 21st Century

Jews are more likely than others to live alone or to have never married, to have smaller families and fewer divorces, to be older when they first married and had their first child, and to have moved to a state where they didn’t grow up. All of these differences may be correlates of socioeconomic advancement.

A portrait of American Jews can be drawn from the cumulative General Social Surveys (GSS), which since 1972 has annually or biennially interviewed random samples of about 1,500 adults, producing an aggregate Jewish sample of over 1,000 respondents. Most of the following analysis compares Jews with non-Jews of similar background. Called “Controls,” they are white, college educated, and living in one of the nation’s large urban areas of the “blue states” in the nation’s East and West. Requiring Controls to have a college degree is conservative because only half of Jews have that level of education. Therefore, where appropriate, comparisons are restricted to college educated Jews. Jews comprise 2% of the population, Controls another 6%. A third comparison group, called “Others,” includes the remaining 92% of Americans.

Based on the 2007 article:  A Statistical Portrait of American Jews into the 21st Century by Professor Allan Mazur

Jews are one of the American ethnic groups giving especially high value to family. Immigrants frequently came to the United States as extended families, if not all at once then strung out over months or years. Table 8-1 summarizes demographic features of the GSS respondents’ families. The Other families are discernibly different than Jewish and Control families. The Others are less likely to live alone or to have never married, they have larger families (more siblings, more children, more people in the household), they divorce more often, and they were younger when they married and had their first child. The Other families are less likely than Jews or Controls to have moved to a different state than the one where they grew up. Compared to Others, Jewish and Control families are very similar on most of these characteristics.


Are Jews Replacing Themselves?

The mean number of children shown in Table 8-1 is deceptively low because many respondents have not completed their families. Figure 8-1 shows how number of children levels off as parents age. Jews and Controls are similar relative to Others, which likely reflects the tendency for higher educated families to have (and want) fewer children. Jewish births top out at two children, slightly below the 2.1 children that demographers regard as necessary for replacement, allowing for early deaths.



The likelihood that Jews will maintain their numbers is even smaller if families now in their childbearing years do not want as many children as their elders did. Figure 8-2 shows the ideal number of children desired by respondents of different ages. The youngest people of all groups want fewer children than older respondents, suggesting that today’s young Jews will complete their families with fewer than two children. This is consistent with the NJPS estimate that the average number of children born to Jewish women is less than 1.9 (United Jewish Communities 2004]). Even if Jews held their numbers constant in the next generation, they would become a smaller portion of the American population, which is growing about 1% per year – half from natural increase and half from immigration.




Desirable Qualities in Children

During its first decade the GSS gave respondents a list of thirteen qualities sometimes found in children and asked, which is the most desirable? The listed traits were good manners, tries hard to succeed, honesty, cleanliness, sound judgment, self control, acts like a boy/girl, gets along well with other children, obeys parents, is responsible, is considerate of others, interested in why and how things happen, and studious. The hope of the surveyors was to find variation among American subgroups in the traits most desired. They found, instead, broad agreement across the population. The trait most favored was honesty (38%), followed by sound judgment (17%) and obeys parents (14%), with all the rest far behind. Comparing Jews, Controls, and Others, we get nearly the same result. Jews and Controls give a little more emphasis to sound judgment, and a little less to honesty.

No doubt disappointed by these bland results, the GSS introduced a new and shorter list of traits in 1986, asking which is the most important for children to learn? This version is more interesting because it reveals variability across the population, as we see in Table 8-2. Numbers in each row that are very close are boldfaced. Large majorities of Jews and Controls pick thinking for oneself as the most important thing for a child to learn. Others also place this at the top of their list but with less agreement. On the other side, Others more three times more likely than Jews or Controls to pick obedience as the most important trait. Popularity ranks least important with everyone (except, probably, the children themselves).


[There are – GS] important changes in the Jewish family including an increased intermarriage rate now almost 50%, and average levels of secular education and affluence only dreamed of by the immigrant generation. Here I emphasize the changing size of the Jewish family. This is difficult to assess directly because younger GSS respondents have not completed their childbearing years. Figure 9-5 shows other relevant and fairly-measured factors as a function of birth year, comparing Jewish and gentile marriages. For Jews, the age of first marriage is staying around 24 years, while age for the first child is born is moving upward, now about 29 years. Non-Jews are lowering their age of marriage but continue to have their first child at age 24. A delay in child bearing usually means a reduction in the number of children.




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