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.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
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.

"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.”

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.

Housing described as a family shelter may accommodate only women and children. Housing vouchers and subsidized leases are often issued in the mother’s name, allowing eviction later if the father is there. Fearing the loss of services, moms may avoid even mentioning the dad.

If we want to help families, we need to treat and serve them as families. Unless there are specific reasons that separate services are needed (such as safety in domestic abuse cases), services should routinely be offered to two-parent families together.

3. Raise public awareness. Attitudes affect aspirations. If young people perceive that marriage is outmoded and two-parent families may not benefit children, they’ll have little reason to work their way through tough times of family life.

But suppose they were to regularly hear the research-based message that a healthy, committed two-parent family is possible even for couples from modest circumstances. Then, the hard work of family life would be encouraged.

We have in the White House a nearly poster-perfect example of a vibrant, committed, successful family. Breaking stereotypes, Barack and Michelle Obama show it’s possible to stay together whether or not your own parents did, to be a loving dad even if you barely knew your own, and to look totally cool as a family. They, along with community leaders, public-spirited celebrities, and those who speak and work with youth, can help set a new tone.

4. Remove barriers to marriage. Many new parents decide – sometimes even the very day a child is born – that they want to marry, or at least to have the father legally acknowledge paternity. While not magically creating a stable family, these decisions offer legal protections and practical benefits.

Yet, in most states, these tools are not easily available to new parents. Marriage may require a trip to a courthouse, payment of a license fee, a waiting period, a blood test, and a second trip to a judge or pastor. Procedures to acknowledge paternity may be obscure and legalistic.

A couple who already has a mutual child and is eager to formalize their family, is making a responsible choice that should be encouraged. There are many simple ways to help them, such as streamlining marriage and paternity laws, and making marriage licenses and paternity forms available at all birthing hospitals.

5. Use existing resources wisely. Young couples working to build a family need access to basic information on family life, protection, and finances. This doesn’t require lavish new programs if we make smart use of existing ones. For example, Early Head Start, which works with new parents, could offer monthly workshops on solving conflicts, avoiding violence, and saving money.

An effective volunteer service – sponsored by faith or community groups – would be family-to-family mentoring, matching experienced, stable families with struggling new ones. Getting such help close to home, young parents will be better able to build their own strong families. As that happens, our families, our communities and, most of all, our children stand to gain.

Marianne Takas is director of the nonprofit education and advocacy group Strengthening Young Families, and the author of books and curriculum for serving fragile families.

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