By JEFFREY COLLINS
COLUMBIA, S.C. – The traditional family of a husband, wife and their kids isn’t as common as it used to be in South Carolina.
Census Bureau data from the 2010 count released last week shows a lot more gay couples, single parents, including fathers raising their own children, and unmarried people living together over the past decade in South Carolina. The state also saw a marked increase in people living with roommates, college students living in dorms and prisoners, especially young female inmates.
The state’s population grew 15.3 percent to 4.6 million people from 2000 to 2010, so increases in any particular group aren’t that surprising. But one of the few groups to actually see a decline in the past decade were mothers and fathers living with their minor children. There were 4 percent fewer of those couples in the state.
“I think as a society, were are slowly becoming much more tolerant of differences,” said Bill Eiwen, pastor of the Reformation Lutheran Church in Columbia, where the newsletter states: “Everyone is welcome in this place, where the love of God is the foundation of all that we say and do.”
“I’ve been married for 37 years,” said Eiwen, pausing to check with his wife to make sure his math was right. “We have two daughters and five grandchildren.” But Eiwen, 58, made it a point for his church to welcome gay couples when he took over about three years ago, and weekly attendance has doubled to about 110 people per week.
According to Census data, the state had nearly 52 percent more gay couples in 2010 than 2000. There is no way to tell how much of that growth came in new gay couples in the state, or how much might have been established couples feeling comfortable enough to identify their situation on a government form.
Gay couples make up just 0.6 percent of the people in South Carolina, but that’s a similar percentage to its neighbors. Gay couples make up about 0.7 percent of North Carolina’s population, and 0.8 percent of the people in Georgia.
Overall, South Carolina has seen an increase in unmarried people sharing a home, in romantic relationships or as roommates. The state saw a nearly 53-percent increase in unmarried couples living together, an almost 37-percent increase in unrelated roommates living together and an 18-percent increase in students living in college or university housing.
The state has seen a nearly 16-percent increase in single mothers, mirroring the jump in the state’s population as a whole from 2000 to 2010. But the number of single fathers raising their children under 18 on their own is up 30 percent, according to Census figures.
Emphasizing fathers can raise their children if they need to without a mother in the picture is important in today’s world, said Pat Littlejohn, executive director of the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families.
“Society is coming around to the fact that dad can do a great job of raising children in a single-parent situation,” Littlejohn said. “I think the days where people thought a father was incapable of raising his own children are getting father and fewer between.”
But there also is a dark side to the numbers.
Littlejohn suspects more fathers are having to take care of children while their mothers are in prison. And Census data shows a 19.3-percent increase over the past decade in the number of prisoners being house in South Carolina, meaning nearly 1 percent of the state’s 4.6 million people are behind bars. The number of female prisoners has increased by nearly 34 percent from 2000 to 2010, with the number of females in juvenile detention facilities rising by 130 percent.
“Sadly, you’ve seen drug use and substance abuse increase among women,” Littlejohn said. “What that leads to is more and more situations where there is child neglect.”
Eiwen thinks South Carolina’s strong faith could be an advantage to helping the state deal with the changes slowly taking place in traditional families. When he headed off to seminary 33 years ago, he never imagined he would be a pastor welcoming gay couples and anyone else into the Lord’s home with open arms.
“But then I look at these gay couples, loving and supportive of each other,” Eiwen said. “And I just remember how I feel about my wife.”