What We Can Do About Family Instability

What We Can Do About Family Instability

People who volunteer in prisons often come up with their own sociological observations, one of which we've heard is that few people who end up incarcerated took piano lessons as a kid. In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, music lies at the top of the pyramid, in the self-actualization range. Chances are, if you're barely satisfying your needs to breath, eat, and sleep, the lofty realms of accomplishment toward the top seem chimeric.

Because basic needs are so important, attempts to help at-risk populations in this country consist primarily of keeping the poor fed, sheltered, and alive. Beyond that, much effort is spent on initiatives to improve schools and job prospects. But with the fundamental pyramid slab of a stable family life missing, the likelihood of a low-income child benefiting from better schools or vocational training remains tenuous.

Little-known, ongoing programs, known as "healthy marriage and relationships initiatives," have been directly addressing the problem of family instability for years. Not only does it harm children to grow up without a mother and father in a stable relationship, but unstable arrangements -- including cohabitation, divorce, and fragile unions -- are making themselves at home in less educated middle-class neighborhoods, while the educated elite continue to stay married and prosperous. Our recent report, "Facilitating Forever: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Relationships and Enduring Marriages," released by the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, argues for continued, reformed, and better implementation of these policies.

The Clinton, Bush, and now Obama administrations have funded relationship-literacy education programs that offer youth, young adults, cohabiting couples, and engaged and young married couples solid, research-based information on what healthy relationships look like, and the skills to make relationships work. The results are mixed, but there is hope: The most vulnerable families often derive the greatest benefits, and more strategic implementation and funding contribute meaningfully to efforts to remedy what distinguished family sociologist Andrew Cherlin labeled "family churning" -- parents' tendency to experience multiple romantic relationships and break-ups over a relatively short period of time. "This merry-go-round property of American families is more than a statistical curiosity," Cherlin warns. "We should be concerned about it, both as parents and as a nation," for it inflicts behavioral and emotional damage while reducing the chances of upward mobility.

Our report addresses both liberal and conservative skeptics. As Emma Green points out in a recent Atlantic piece, left-leaning educated Americans overwhelmingly raise kids in two-parent households, and their stable marriages "are the secret sauce of economic well-being that nobody on the left wants to admit to using." And on the right, those wary of government intrusion need to keep in mind that it's when families break up that government takes over in a big way: Courts decide when divorced parents can see the kids, child-support agencies garnish paychecks of biological parents, and massive public-assistance programs continually expand to support struggling single-parent families.

Family instability looks far different among the poor than it looks among your well-educated divorced friends -- whose children remain surrounded by healthy relationships, role models, and what University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax describes as "clear rules" of success. Think of "Kelly," a pseudonym Amber Lapp and Brad Wilcox of the Institute for Family Studies use for a working-class resident of Maytown, Ohio, whose trajectory from married mother of two to not-yet-divorced girlfriend has included cohabiting with a registered sex offender.

Public support for relationship-literacy education offers a practical route out of that dysfunction by providing key resources to low-income families too busy surviving to read Modern Love columns in the New York Times. On a more subtle level, they may counteract the acceptance of dysfunctional family life that has taken hold among the poor.

Tackling family instability means enhancing, not replacing, other efforts to help the disadvantaged succeed. Let's keep reforming the education system, supporting the community agencies taking Head Start kids on science-museum field trips, and encouraging all routes out of downward mobility, poverty, and jail. But in prioritizing, let's also keep in mind another sobering observation those who volunteer with teenagers and young adults newly released from prison make: There aren't any parents or stability to go home to. Only chaos.

Alan J. Hawkins and Betsy VanDenBerghe are the authors of the National Marriage Project's recent report "Facilitating Forever: A Feasible Public Policy Agenda to Help Couples Form and Sustain Healthy Relationships and Enduring Marriages."

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