The second of three discussion areas I proposed in my blog "Solutions to Ending Poverty in the 21st Century: Part 1" is to find a way to end generational poverty by focusing on the breakdown of the family structure. Talking about the role that the lack of family structure has in keeping people in poverty is a difficult, but necessary conversation regardless of how controversial it may be.
The controversy that is associated with this topic is usually because the tone of the discussion can get preachy and condescending as it devolves into judgments on morality. I'd rather this discussion be based on a responsibility and practicality and leave the extraneous debate associated with moral issues to religious groups.
The fact is that too many children in this country are born into poor, mostly single-parent homes with parents who don't have the ability to care for themselves let alone their children. This is a problem that affects all of us and has long-ranging consequences for us as a country. Children born into poverty are more likely to drop out of high school, end up in jail, become teenage parents and to hold low wage jobs.
This is not to say that single parents are all bad or less valuable in some way. But it also needs to be recognized that a child born into a single parent home is more likely to live in poverty and have a more difficult upbringing. For obvious reasons, we should encourage our communities to have children only when they are able to properly care for them emotionally and financially. Don't our children deserve stability in their upbringing?
Race, class and gender of course play a significant role in who ends up in poverty and being born into the wrong circumstances can impact your likely success in life. Recent statistics show that 73 percent of black children are born outside marriage, compared with 53 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of white children. There are real consequences in those numbers. Poverty rates are highest for families headed by single women, particularly if they are black or Hispanic. According to the National Poverty Center, "In 2010, 31.6 percent of households headed by single women were poor, while 15.8 percent of households headed by single men and 6.2 percent of married-couple households lived in poverty."
The New York Times writes "about 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less, according to Child Trends." Why is it the case that the more educated you are, the more likely you are to be married when you have children? What is the benefit to those children? Those kids have a better start in life and many of our children are never able to catch up. This is unacceptable. We live in one of the greatest countries in the world. We are taught that if we work hard and make good choices, we can be successful. I argue that making good decisions includes waiting to have children until you are stable, mature and willing to put the love and care of that child ahead of your own wants and needs.
I think it is apparent that children growing up in an environment with people who can love and care for them is extremely important in the emotional, physical and financial health of these children. I know that children live in a variety of different situations like with same-sex parents, being raised by a grandparent like I was or being adopted. These are wonderful options for children whose parents are unable or unwilling to be responsible for them. Unfortunately, there are not enough good homes or alternatives for all the kids in need so we have to work on helping their parents to provide the best home possible and that starts with having both parents play a role in their children's lives.
Good fathers are an important part of a child's life and too many men are not taking financial responsibility for their children and too many have no relationship with their children at all. Having a parent not being around feels like a rejection and can do long-lasting damage to the child's self-esteem further fueling the cycle to continue to the next generation.
This is not an article to bash single mothers or the poor. I know some women who have done an amazing job of raising children on their own, but the ones I talk to speak about how difficult it has been trying to be both mother and father, about being concerned about losing their job because they are the family's sole breadwinner, if what they are doing is enough for the children, and the difficulty of having to shoulder the burden of raising a child all on their own.
This conversation is less about the structure of your family and more about the level of responsibility that adults are willing and able to take in the raising of their children. We as a country have to be willing to invest in the parents and children living in poverty, but our programs and social safety net should be geared towards making sure that less and less people are living in these circumstances. Encouraging marriages and stable relationships makes financial sense. Two incomes are better than one especially when it comes to the cost of raising children. The important question you should be asking regardless of your family situation is, 'can you afford to care for these children and if you can't then does it make sense to become a parent at that time?' People always say you are never totally financially prepared for children, but it is detrimental to the child when you are unable to provide the basics.
I believe that we as a society have an unspoken agreement that we should support those among us that fall on hard times until they can get back on their feet. This is with the understanding that for some people it may take longer than others. It also requires willingness on the part of those that are able to work, to not become a long-term burden on the collective by working hard to get back on their feet. The attitude exhibited by some that it is acceptable to have children with the expectation that the public at large will provide services indefinitely or that additional children lead to additional services is unfair to us all and also downright harmful to not only those children, but to others that are using those services to become self-sufficient.
It's not fair to have children you can't clothe, feed, or provide a roof over their head. I was one of those children born into those circumstances and I will always be grateful for the social safety net provided but I wish that my mother had waited until she was in a more stable position and had dealt with her dependency issues before having me and my brother. We were also further impaired by a father who abandoned me at two years old. I wish my parents had been ready to do the job of parenting and the responsibility that goes along with that.
The truth is that most of the people living in poverty in the U.S. are women and children and the perpetuation of families with parents either unable or unwilling to provide and care for their families are only creating a greater issue for us to deal with in the future. If we continue more of our population will fall into poverty impacting our ability to be more competitive in an ever-changing world.