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July 25, 2014

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Modern family matters

When I asked readers for “neglected topics” that journalists should cover more in 2014, one of the suggestions was a delicate but vital topic: family breakdown and the rise of single-parent households.

This is an issue that, frustratingly, the right has hijacked and the left has been reluctant to confront. Yet it’s intimately related to poverty in our country.

“It isn’t politically correct to call attention to the effects of the increase in single women giving birth,” wrote Colton, one reader who suggested the topic. “Three important effects are the greatly increased incidence of long-term poverty, poor development outcomes and poor educational achievement among the children.”

“Our hesitancy to face the problem may result from fear of accusations of being moralists, racists, anti-woman, anti-freedom, supporting government decisions into personal decisions,” Lucinda noted.

Conservatives are, I think, correct to highlight family stability as a fundamental issue that goes to the welfare of children as much as food stamps or anything else. Children raised by a single parent are more than three times as likely to live in poverty as those raised by two parents, according to census data.

After Daniel Patrick Moynihan raised the issue in 1965 in the context of black families, he was condemned in liberal circles as intolerant if not racist. Over time, though, there has been a growing appreciation that he was ahead of his time, and as the Urban Institute notes, the percentage of white babies born to unwed mothers is now the same as it was for black babies when he sounded his alarm.

Yet if the issue is critical, it often emerges as part of a narrative that hectors the poor for their poverty. Republicans focus on “personal irresponsibility” or suggest that there’s nothing to be done about poverty until “those people” stop having kids outside of marriage.

As I see it, conservatives are right in their diagnosis that the issue is critical in addressing poverty, but they are wrong in their prescriptions, while liberals are often too politically correct to address the issue at all.

First, the backdrop.

At last count in the United States, almost 36 percent of births were to unmarried women, according to census data. The birthrate for unmarried women is up 80 percent since 1980.

Furthermore, census data show that a majority of high school dropouts having babies are unmarried; only 9 percent of college graduates are. Two-thirds of black women giving birth are unmarried; just more than a quarter of white women are.

Of course, what matters isn’t whether the parents have a marriage certificate but whether they are partners who are both committed to raising children they want and love. An Australian study found gay parenting had better outcomes on average, apparently because gay couples don’t have kids by accident.

Conservatives blame war-on-poverty welfare programs for undermining marriage. Academic studies indicate that this effect, while real, is small. The percentage of births to single mothers has been rising steadily in the United States (and other countries) since the 1940s.

Republicans tried “marriage promotion” initiatives during the administration of George W. Bush, and these are worth testing, but, so far, they have failed the litmus test. They didn’t work. However, there are several steps that we could take:

• First is to expand family planning so that teenagers and young adults don’t have babies they don’t want and are ill-prepared to care for. Four out of five teenage pregnancies are unintended, according to the Guttmacher Institute. It’s promising that a randomized trial found that the Carrera pregnancy prevention curriculum in low-income schools reduced teen births by half. Family-planning initiatives save taxpayer money now spent on health care and the safety net, yet, after inflation, America’s investment in Title X family planning has fallen some 70 percent since 1980. That’s crazy.

• Second is to end America’s disastrous experiment in mass incarceration. We quintupled incarceration rates since the 1970s, according to the Pew Center on the States, and, thus condemned millions of men — often men of color or with low incomes — to life at the margins and made them much less attractive as husbands. If the family has broken down, we helped break it.

• Third is to back outreach efforts and job programs that give young people a lift and a stake in the future. Programs such as Nurse-Family Partnership that work with low-income mothers have a proven track record of keeping families together. Likewise, an evaluation found that of young mothers in an Illinois outreach effort called Options for Youth, 97 percent delayed a subsequent pregnancy.

Talk about personal responsibility! It’s irresponsible on our part to fail to take these steps.

So, readers, thanks for raising this issue. And let’s address it not with platitudes but with proven policies that don’t just hail the family but also strengthen it.

Nicholas Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.

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