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Opinion

To fight wealth gap, save the family

The biggest predictor of family economic status is not race or geography, but whether households are headed by one parent or two. Until we address the reality of family breakup, we can’t effectively fight that key cause of family poverty. Here are five ways to keep families together.

By Marianne Takas / January 30, 2013

President Obama walks with daughters Sasha and Malia, first lady Michelle Obama, and mother-in-law Marian Robinson to church in Washington on Inauguration Day, Jan. 21.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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Clarksville, Md.

"We, the people,” said President Obama, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

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That inaugural statement implies a worthy goal. To make progress, though, we’ll have to face squarely the issue most likely to shatter a family’s economic prospects: the separation of the parents who head it.

Statistically, the biggest predictor of family economic status is not race or geography, but whether households are headed by one parent or two. That’s why a family headed by a single white mother is nearly three times more likely to be poor than a family headed by married black parents. In fact, among all children living with a single mom, well more than a third live in poverty.

We can and should try to improve educational and job opportunities for single parents as well as support services. But it will always be tough for one-adult teams to compete with two-adult teams.

Overwhelmingly, one-adult teams occur because two involved parents tried to be a family, but fell apart. Until we address the reality of family breakup and find a way to help, we can’t effectively fight that key cause of family poverty.

Today, 41 percent of US babies are born to unmarried mothers – but it’s inaccurate and misleading to call them all single mothers.

As shown in a leading study, most unmarried mothers (82 percent) are still romantically involved with the baby’s father when the baby is born, in most cases living together, and the two parents hope and intend to raise their child together. So, in reality, for every 10 American babies, on average, six are born to a married couple, three to an unmarried but involved couple, and only one to a mother not romantically involved with the baby’s father.

This presents an important opportunity. Studies show that when parents stay together, most families benefit. Parents tend to get and hold jobs, family wealth increases, kids do better in school, and family members generally report better health and happiness than in single-parent families. Communities gain through higher tax revenue and lower social costs.

But those opportunities are lost when families fall apart. Close to half of all US marriages end in divorce, and breakups among unmarried parenting couples are even more common.

There’s a lot that we can do to help families stay and even thrive together. We don’t need expensive new programs, and we can almost certainly save money in the long run. These key strategies can help:

1. Seize the moment. The first year of a baby’s life is a crucial window of opportunity. Right then, when parents have high hopes for raising their child together – but also face the high stress of infancy – it’s essential to help families meet challenges together.

2. Serve families as families. Many services for vulnerable infants tend to be offered primarily to mothers, or to mothers and fathers separately, perhaps on the assumption that unmarried parents aren’t a long-term team. A program teaching safe infant care to low-income new parents, for example, may offer classes or home visits primarily to mothers, with perhaps a once-a-week support group for dads.

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