It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the state of American society. Poverty is widespread. Steady, well-paying jobs are scarce. Economic inequality is high, and mobility is low. Fewer adults are getting married, meaning more children are seeing their parents break up. Too many kids are stuck in failing schools, and too many young adults are stuck in dead-end jobs.
These problems are intertwined on many levels: Financial instability contributes to family instability, which in turn puts children at greater risk of struggling in school today and failing to land good jobs tomorrow. Achieving upward economic mobility without strong families and decent schools is next to impossible. We could go on.
Politicians have not exactly risen to the challenge of solving these complicated problems, partly because of disagreements over which one causes all the rest, and partly because of clashing values.
A new report from the AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity may offer them a way forward. In it, the group’s fifteen scholars, hailing from the left, right, and center, call for fighting poverty and promoting economic mobility through the intertwined spheres of family, work, and education. They orient their proposals around the widely shared values in the report title: “Opportunity, Responsibility, and Security.” Opportunity refers to the American Dream: All Americans should be able to advance in life, no matter where they came from. Responsibility means, in the authors’ words, that “as many people as possible should be able to support themselves and their children” (without having to rely on government aid). Security implies that the unavoidable risks we all face—of becoming disabled, losing one’s job in a recession, and so on—necessitate some form of social insurance, especially to ensure that children do not suffer from the bad luck (and sometimes bad choices) of their parents.
Although the scholars offer detailed policy reforms in all three areas they discuss—family, work, and education—we will focus on their findings and proposals related to strengthening families, for as the Brookings Institution scholar Isabel Sawhill has warned, “Social policy faces an uphill battle as long as families continue to fragment and children are deprived of the resources of two parents.” Unfortunately, contemporary trends do not bode well in this regard. White, black, and Hispanic children alike have grown more likely to be born to unmarried mothers in the past forty years, as the below figure indicates. Many of these mothers are not single but in cohabiting relationships, which are three times as likely as marriages to dissolve by the time the child turns five.
This trend is putting a rising number of children at risk of poverty, school dropout, and associated ills, with ripple effects that touch all of society. Yet the power of the government to shape families while respecting individuals’ freedom is modest. The report authors jointly endorsed several ideas that work within these constraints:
1. “Promote marriage as the most reliable route to family stability and resources.” This proposal is not about marriage and relationship education programs for at-risk couples—programs whose effectiveness has been limited—but about a public information campaign highlighting the benefits of becoming a parent only within the context of a committed relationship (which, for most, means marriage). As the authors note, “Major cultural norms have been changed many times before when leaders expressed firm and unequivocal views about even entrenched cultural attitudes, including norms surrounding civil rights and gay rights.” If a diverse group of political, educational, and civic leaders unite behind a pro-marriage message, it could help change young people’s expectations and decisions.
2. “Promote parenting skills and practices, especially among low-income parents.” For kids, enjoying a strong and supportive family isn’t just about the number of parents in the home—it’s also about the attention, instruction, and simulation those parents provide. Indeed, according to some research, “differences in parenting explain roughly a third of the income-related gaps in child development.” Home visiting programs—in which nurses or other professionals make regular visits to the homes of (typically) first-time, single, low-income mothers to educate them on parenting and child development—might be one vehicle for closing this parenting divide. Expanding access to programs like these, so long as they are based on compelling evidence of success, could help close the “parenting gap” between social classes and the achievement gap to which it contributes.
3. “Promote skill development, family involvement, and employment among young men as well as women.” In addition to strengthening the public assistance programs that help single mothers get by, the working group proposed doing more to get poor, nonresident fathers both financially stable and involved with their children. One simply way to boost disadvantaged men’s income and labor force participation would be to make the federal earned income tax credit more generous to childless adults and nonresident parents. The trick here, of course, is expanding the EITC without introducing yet another marriage penalty into our tax and transfer system. Finally, in light of research showing how much children benefit from involved fathers in infancy and beyond, the authors urge expanding parenting programs to enroll new and expectant fathers as well as mothers. We think new parents should also be given the facts about how a healthy marriage benefits them and especially their children.
In combination with the report’s proposals surrounding jobs and education, these ideas could help arrest trends in family breakdown and economic stagnation. And the report sends a strong message to both political parties: If you want to reduce poverty and increase economic mobility, you can’t ignore the family.
Anna Sutherland is the editor of the Family Studies blog. W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.