THE CHILDREN'S SAKE
Researchers of every ilk are sifting through the 2000 Census data for stories, and many are eager to find signs of new life in marital trends. It seems there is an odd convergence of conviction among the latter: they include conservative think-tanks, as well as liberals, who believe the plight of poor children is improved if they live in two-parent homes. One group of such researchers--the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities--sees evidence of a shift in the Census Bureau's current population survey. The group found that between 1995 and 2000, the proportion of all children under the age of 18 living with a single mother declined from 19.9 to 18.4 percent. Change was even more dramatic in the African-American community, where the proportion of children living with two married parents increased from 34.8 percent to 38.9 percent.
"The trend away from two parents seems to have clearly halted," declares Wendell Primus, the center's director of income security. As the former deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, Primus created headlines with his resignation in 1996 in protest of President Clinton's signing of the welfare reform bill. While he is quite sure that these numbers constitute a meaningful shift, he admits that championing marriage is highly controversial among his liberal peers. "There are some in the women's movement who are concerned," he concedes. "I think they have a right to some of their concerns, especially given the conservative rhetoric. But there's a growing body of literature that says that children--holding everything else equal--do better in two-parent families."
This sentiment is echoed by Lee Fisher '73, an Oberlin College trustee and former Ohio attorney general. Today he is president and CEO of the Center for Families and Children in Cleveland, which offers programs to help ensure that all children have loving mothers and fathers, whether they're married or not.
"We've found that children from fatherless homes are more likely to do poorly in school, drop out, live in poverty, be incarcerated--the list goes on and on," he says. "We're doing everything here to promote responsible fatherhood, through things like our Fathers and Families Together program for noncustodial men. But having said that, we do believe that marriage is the first and best choice."
And couples do share this belief. After nine years of unwedded bliss, Roberto Santiago '85 and Darcy Marousek plan to marry next year because they want to have children: ideally a girl, then a boy. "We are dead set against having children out of wedlock for both legal and ethical reasons," explains Santiago, who is the deputy boroughs editor of the New York Daily News. "I predict we will become more conventional as a couple after we marry. Right now, we still feel like we're dating. But when we have a child, our focus must be on what is best for the child. It is a tougher world for women and people of color, so we plan to prepare our future daughter to take on any challenges."
Still, plenty of sociologists are unconvinced that putting pressure on poor parents to marry is the best way to help their children. Much of the debate about marriage--particularly when it comes from the mouths of Defense of Marriage Act supporters--masks an unwillingness to put forward the kind of dollars it would take to improve the lives of poor children. Even when they acknowledge that some of the talk comes from those genuinely devoted to the interests of poor children, some object to the emphasis on marriage as the best or only way to help them.
"There are other routes to reducing child poverty," says Peggy Kahn '75, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan-Flint. "They are being followed in other countries that have family policies that improve the well-being of children and single-mother families.
"Single mothers and their children remain vulnerable everywhere because there is only one potential earner who must also be the caregiver, but they are most vulnerable in countries like the United States with weak, residual welfare provisions with no national health plan, no high-quality public child care, no family allowances, no housing rights, no advanced maintenance (guaranteed) child support, and a proliferation of low-wage jobs at irregular hours."
It is the children we must watch over and protect as the shifting trends define themselves: for and against marriage; for and against cohabitation; for and against same-sex parenting. A loving, two-parent household, regardless of the legal status or sex of the adults, still appears to offer the most successful outcomes for the children--who may be more comfortable than anyone else with the society's current transitional movements.
Kristin Ohlson is a freelance writer in Cleveland Heights, Ohio