The Federal Government’s Role in Nurturing Families
Families are children’s most important teachers, nurses, nutritionists, safety officers, and mentors. Strong communities are needed to support families in these roles. Yet, too many families struggle to provide the nurturing and stable home environments children need. Through a combination of poverty and stress, immaturity and mental illness among parents, too many children are vulnerable to a host of poor outcomes.
Research is clear on the critical importance of a child having consistent and loving family relationships, but the federal role in promoting such relationships has been one of intense debate. People’s conceptions of what constitutes loving family relationships differ, as do conceptions of the role of faith, values and norms in determining them. This extends to the definition of what constitutes a family and what resultant rights and responsibilities to confer on gay and lesbian couples and the children in their households. It extends to the role of government in promoting marriage or making it a condition of receipt of certain benefits. It also extends to the rights that un-emancipated children have in relation to their parents in such fundamental issues as selecting a faith or making decisions about their education.
While these issues remain subject to sharp division and debate, the federal government has enacted a wide array of demonstration grants to strengthen families, including programs designed to reduce adolescent pregnancy and fatherhood initiatives to increase the role of fathers in supporting their children, economically and emotionally. Some of these have been “faith-based” initiatives, recognizing the important role that faith institutions play in families’ lives but seeking to be non-sectarian or non-doctrinaire within the approach itself.
Nurturing Families and Challenges Ahead
Although many single parents do an excellent job raising their children, research also is clear that children do best in stable and nurturing households where there are two parents to provide support. When people talk about the “breakdown of the family,” they most often do so with respect to the increase in single parenting and divorce, which has occurred across all racial and ethnic groups.
In one of the most significant demographic trends in America, the rise in births to unmarried women and the rise in divorce rates among those who do marry have resulted in a commensurate rise in the proportion of children who spend at least part of their lives growing up in single-parent households.
The U.S. Census shows that there has been a steady increase in the proportion of all births that are to single mothers—from 5 percent in 1960 to 32 percent in 1995 to 41 percent in 2009. There has been a similar rise in the proportion of children under 18 living in a single-parent household, from 9 percent of all children in 1960 to 34 percent in 2009. Over four in five of these single-parent families are headed by women, and these families are five times more likely than married-couple families to be living in poverty. Divorce accounts for a significant share of at least temporary single-parenting, with half of all marriages ending in divorce. When there is domestic violence or high levels of conflict among parents, divorce may be better for the child, but in almost all instances divorce represents an adverse childhood experience that requires additional attention in order to mitigate risks of harm to the child. All these have consequences on children and their opportunity to grow into healthy, successful adults.
The family is the foundation for the next generation, and children do best in families with stable, nurturing, consistent care. Yet family structure is changing in America, most notably with an increase in single parenting.
What federal actions can be taken, in particular, to address the growth of single parenting and its implications to children’s nurturing and development?
Research also shows that women without a high-school diploma are more likely to live in poverty, be unmarried, have more children and bear them at a younger age. The fathers of their children similarly are much more likely to have low education, criminal justice-system involvement, and difficulty obtaining and keeping employment. While not the only cause of single-parenting and child poverty, lack of education and the opportunity it provides for economic success play a significant role. Although adolescent parenting has declined, becoming a teen parent remains a leading reason for dropping out of high school. Sixty percent of unmarried teen mothers do not complete high school and 98 percent do not obtain a college degree.
Context for Federal Electoral Dialogue
There is general consensus that government should recognize and support families as the foundation of society and respect their rights to raise children according to their values. Yet this is not absolute. On some issues, such as child safety and protection from abuse, the public views the child’s needs as superseding parental rights. On others, such as federal economic and social policies regarding the legal definition of their parents for children living with gay and lesbian couples, government is the final authority, as it has been in determining voting rights for women and minorities and interracial couples. On others, such as how to better support families in provide nurturing environments for their children, government policies and practices within existing public systems play a role.