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.”
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