Stable relationships, educational opportunity and economic opportunity are all important for family well-being, according to a new report by the Council on Contemporary Families.
Researchers from the CCF, a nonprofit research organization that seeks to promote public understanding of the needs of contemporary families, used recent census data to look at family structure and to assess the financial and relationship health of American families.
“Poverty remains a striking problem for American children,” according to the report. “Financial security, even more than household composition, shapes children’s everyday experiences in ways that contribute to growing inequality.”
The report links low parental education and economic opportunity to lower rates of marriage and increased single parenting. Education, marital status and income are connected in complicated ways, according to the study’s author, Shannon Cavanagh, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin.
“I think the takeaway from the report is that children’s household composition looks very different depending on parents’ educational attainment, and that these differences can send kids off into very different socioeconomic trajectories," she said in an interview.
The report is part of an ongoing discussion among marriage and family researchers about whether changes in family composition are a cause or an effect of economic instability. Conservatives have argued that the decline in marriage rates contributes to poverty. Liberals have argued that economic inequality prevents many people from getting or staying married. Recent findings have brought viewpoints from both sides together, as reported in the Deseret News.
Economics of marriage
In 1960, 90 percent of children lived in homes with two married parents. In 2014, that number had decreased to 64 percent. Children with single or unmarried parents are more likely to live in poverty, but the effect of marriage on poverty is smaller than policymakers or the public might think, according to the CCR report.
“In fact, the total number of children living in or near poverty — 15.2 million with married parents and 16.7 million with a single parent — is about the same,” Cavanagh wrote.
Stephanie Coontz, a family studies researcher who is also part of the CCF, said too often government officials of both major political parties have promoted marriage by itself as a solution to poverty. She advocates a more nuanced view with the understanding that educational opportunity, economic opportunity and relationship stability are intertwined.
“We have to work on all three things at once,” Coontz said. “Yes, we have to help people enter and sustain stable relationships. But we cannot kid ourselves that they’ll be able to do that unless we also take other steps to ensure more job security and more access to good education.”
Census data show that limited economic prospects translate into lower marriage rates, higher divorce rates and more cohabitating unions, according to the report.
“It’s very hard for low-income people to reach enough financial stability themselves to maintain stable relationships, or to feel confident about entering stable relationships,” Coontz explained.
Where children thrive
Under the right circumstances, marriage enhances family relationships, Coontz said. “Once you have a good relationship, I think marriage adds something to it, because once you get married, people take more of an interest in your relationship," she said. "You get the social glow of your commitment being recognized.”
Cavanagh stressed that it’s not marriage alone that predicts the best outcomes for children. Instead, the report implies that marriage is associated with educational attainment, economic opportunity and relationship stability.
Studying family structure in relationship to poverty is important because “differences in economic security and relationship stability among parents affect their children’s future prospects.” Cavanagh wrote.
For example, in 2013, 77 percent of young adults from high-income families earned at least a bachelor’s degree by the time they turned 24, compared to just 9 percent of young adults from low-income families. This holds true for both single-parent and two-parent households.
The report also examined the amount of money families spend on extracurricular activities for children. High-income families spend three times as much money on these activities as low-income families. For example, 42 percent of middle and upper income children participate in sports, compared to 22.5 percent of children in poverty.
Parents who are financially stable have economic and emotional resources to devote to their children, Coontz explained. Economic stress causes parents to be more depressed, reactive and angry. “Poverty and economic insecurity undermine people’s parenting skills,” she said.
In a stable household, children thrive, according to Cavanagh. “Kids thrive with a routine, and when there are rituals and routines in everyday life, with time and resources spent on children, children tend to do better," she said. Poverty, single parenting and parents changing partners potentially decrease a child’s chance of growing up with stable routines, although this is not true in all cases. “There are married parent families that are hugely disorganized, and there are single-parent families that are very organized,” she said.
Coontz expressed concern that the economic downturn of the past several years has undermined families’ financial security. “We have to work on many fronts. We really have to do something about the decreasing economic security and declining wages of the bottom 60 percent of the population. It’s not just the poor. Middle class people are beginning to feel terribly discouraged. They’re earning less than their parents did. They’re losing benefits.”
The CCF analysis found that in 2014, about 16 million children received food assistance through the government's Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program or food stamps. In 2007 before the Great Recession, only 9 million children received food assistance through SNAP.
Coontz believes that Americans can and should work together to create the conditions that will improve families' well-being. “These problems are all intertwined, and there’s no magic solution, but there are solutions if we work at it,” she said.
Source: Single Parenting - Google News