Research: Intact Families Can Help the Poor, Stop Poverty Cycle

WASHINGTON – Children raised by both their mom and their dad are more likely to go to college and to make more money than children raised by unwed and divorced parents, and the impact is greater among the poor. This is just one of the findings presented at the American Enterprise Institute's Tuesday panel discussion, "Left behind: Why trends in family structure and parenting are setting some kids up to fail."

Unwed childbearing is now the new norm for women under 30 in the United States, noted keynote speaker Isabel Sawhill, senior fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. There is also a growing class divide, she said, with the low income having more children out-of-wedlock than those with high levels of income.

The high rate of unwed childbearing among the poor and lower middle-class is important because children of divorced and single parents do less well in school, are less likely to go to college, and are more likely to have children as unmarried teens and young adults, thus perpetuating a cycle of poverty.

W. Bradford Wilcox, visiting scholar at AEI and a sociology professor at the University of Virginia, presented evidence that among less-educated families, children raised by married parents earn, on average, $4,000 more per year than children raised by divorced, unwed or single parents. (Wilcox also published his remarks in the form of an article for The Atlantic.)

Mike Petrilli, an education analyst and executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said that if students follow the "success sequence" – 1) get a high school diploma 2) get a job 3) get married and 4) have babies – and follow it in that order, they are "almost guaranteed to not be poor" and their children will not be poor.

He noted that students of lower-income tend to view pregnancy differently than upper-income students. Putting off marriage and kids is the norm for students planning to go to college. For teens who do not see themselves going to college, though, "the idea of having a baby and becoming successful as a mother or father is very compelling. Getting pregnant, having a baby and caring for a baby is a demonstration of responsibility."

As a school reformer, Petrilli wants schools to find ways to encourage students to follow the success sequence. He pointed out that some schools, such as KIPP charter schools are doing that with promising results.

Video of the event is available at the AEI website.

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