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Fragile Families: Most Children Born Out of Wedlock Aren't OK

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Over the past week I have had the chance to consort with some incredibly intelligent and distinguished people to address two topics of the highest importance to me. Last month, two days before sitting on a panel on "Peace in the Home" with the Dalai Lama and several other notable peace advocates at the Newark Educational Peace Summit, I met with renowned folk at Princeton University to discuss the recently published report, "The Future of Children: Fragile Families."

A "fragile family" is defined very simply as a family in which the mother and father are unmarried at the time of their child's birth. Whereas 40 years ago, the number of children born to unwed parents was around 10 percent, the current figure now stands at 41 percent.

Lead by a team of researchers from Columbia and Princeton Universities, the study followed approximately 5,000 children born in large cities in the U.S. between 1998 and 2000 to investigate family dynamics, the well-being of the child, the ongoing consequences of unstable partnerships and what role, if any, policy should play in addressing them.

There is some debate over whether unmarried partnerships are a negative outcome at all, or whether they are a sign of progress, reflecting the increasing economic independence of women and the trend toward individual freedom. However, results of the study conclude that compared with "traditional families," parents of fragile families are more likely to have become parents in their teens, more likely to have had children with other partners, more likely to be poor, suffer from depression, struggle with substance abuse, and to have been incarcerated. They are also disproportionately African American and Hispanic.

Of the highest concern is what this means for the child, because as the number of fragile families increases, so do the number of children exposed to the unstable environments that they foster. Fragile families are shown to have harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities, and children of such families produce lower cognitive test scores and a have a higher incidence of aggressive behavior.

Furthermore, previous research demonstrates that children who live apart from one of their parents at some point in their childhood are twice as likely to drop out of high school, twice as likely to have a child before age 20, and one and a half times as likely to be out of school or work by their late teens or early 20s.

The consequences are devastating, not only for these children and their families, but for our communities and for our society as a whole. As a child's outcomes are compromised, the likelihood that they will continue that negative cycle into adulthood and with their own families is vastly increased. If unstable families are becoming more prevalent, the effect on future generations may be astronomic -- a harrowing potential, considering the already deepening divide between struggling urban communities and their wealthier counterparts.

With the number of fragile families rising and the increased awareness of the negative outcomes for children and parents in such partnerships, we must ask ourselves whether we as a society should respond, and how.

I would argue that as a society, we can and should respond. In my work with fathers in transition, most of whom have recently been released from incarceration, I have seen first-hand how tailored social programs can positively affect the outcomes for families and children in need.

So what can we do? Firstly, we can work together to prevent the establishment of new fragile families, and secondly, we can work with existing fragile families to support ongoing stability within the home.

Policies intended to motivate parents to avoid unintended pregnancy, including media campaigns, sex education and access to birth control, are vital in preemptively addressing the rise in fragile families. For families that are already considered fragile, such as those I work with on a daily basis, programs like the National Comprehensive Center for Fathers, can and do make a difference.

The study suggests that our society reconsider policies that encourage couples to remain unmarried, such as those that deny social services to parents based on the sum of both incomes. They also recommend curtailing harsh child support laws, which can prevent fathers from seeking full time work, and instead consider policies to promote father involvement with their children after a divorce or split.

Additionally, we can work with children one on one through high-quality early education and home visiting programs. And on a larger scale, the issues of incarceration and the lack of education of many absent fathers can be addressed by reconsidering the punitive structure of our criminal justice system and increasing access to educational opportunities and job skill training.

Children in fragile and unstable families do not suffer simply because of their parent's decision to remain unmarried. Instead, the consequences for these children often result from societal factors which contribute to that choice, including low education, high rates of incarceration, joblessness, poverty and drug use.

We need to reframe the issue. Rather than being about the individual, we can view most social policy as being about children and families, and the choice to make policy decisions that benefit this population. For example, when we consider the issue of incarceration and curtailing harsh sentencing for drug infractions, or choosing preventative and rehabilitative rather than punitive methods, we can consider these policy choices in the context of the family -- because more than likely, the incarcerated individual is a father or a mother.

With awareness of the day to day suffering of the children in unstable families comes the realization that we as a society have a choice -- we can choose what our priorities are and where to focus our resources. And if our priority is children and families, we must always ask ourselves whether the policies we support promote or discourage positive outcomes for them.