January 2011 Archives

Winning the Future for Children

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President Obama's State of the Union address focused on our country's future. Despite our challenges, our country must come together to "out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world."

 

The President rightly acknowledged that this will take excellence in the classroom. We need to begin education earlier, advance education in math and science, reward and retain high performing teachers, prepare students for education beyond high school, and make post-secondary education affordable and meaningful to students, so that they are primed for jobs in a technologically driven global economy.

 

Obama then went on to emphasize the importance of parents, in addition to teachers and schools, in a child's education. The education of a child begins "not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities." The President asked "whether all of us - as citizens, and as parents - are willing to do what's necessary to give every child a chance to succeed."

 

The question is a hard one that involves not only making changes to our education system, but also buttressing families, particularly fragile families, so that they can provide the support necessary for their children's success. 

 

As the President mentioned, "it's family first that instills the love of learning in a child." Our country must look to comprehensive policy approaches that not only promote and improve education, but also encompass a wide range of initiatives from job creation to health care, to support American families.

 

And the government cannot and should not do it alone. Our individual knowledge and advocacy around these issues is critical to building communities that can work in tandem with policy changes to support children's development.

 

As the President begins suggesting policy plans to implement his vision, investigate some of our relevant volumes, which will hopefully help you clarify your thoughts and advocacy efforts related to improving child wellbeing: Fragile Families, Transition to Adulthood, Preventing Child Maltreatment, America's High Schools, and Excellence in the Classroom, among others. <http://www.futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/journals/>;

 

Our upcoming volume on Immigrant Children (March 2011) will provide additional clarity regarding both legal and illegal immigrant children and their futures in the United States.

Creating a Better World

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What does it take to create a better future for our children?

With the passing of Sargent Shriver yesterday, January 18th, we remember a leader with an inspiring vision for a better world, who strove to create opportunities where they did not exist.

A man who "came to embody the idea of public service," as President Obama described him, Shriver was the first director of the Peace Corps during President Kennedy's administration, turning the modest project into a respectable powerhouse of international volunteerism. Under President Johnson's administration, Shriver created the Office of Economic Opportunity and is known as the 'architect' of the Johnson administration's War on Poverty. He founded, among others, Head Start, VISTA, the Job Corps, Community Action, Upward Bound, Foster Grandparents, the Special Olympics, Legal Services, the National Clearinghouse for Legal Services (now the Shriver Center), Indian and Migrant Opportunities, and Neighborhood Health Services.

In thinking about the topics that The Future of Children seeks to address, it is difficult to imagine one that Sargent Shriver did not touch. Our volumes on The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies and Opportunity in America, in particular, build on Sargent's work.

His family remembers him as "a man of giant love, energy, enthusiasm, and commitment.  He lived to make the world a more joyful, faithful, and compassionate place."

Sargent Shriver's values and life's work provide an example for other visionaries who strive to create a more humane world for our children.

As Woodrow Wilson said, "you are here to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world." Clearly, Sargent Shriver did.

King's Dream Deferred for Children of Unmarried Parents

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Last week, news at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School mentioned work by researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities, which suggests that Martin Luther King's dream is deferred for millions of children. The reason? A significant increase over the past 40 years in the percentage of children born into fragile families, defined as couples who are unmarried when their children are born. Almost three-fourths of African American children and just over half of Hispanic children are born to unmarried parents, and whites are quickly catching up -- so much so that the proportion of white children born to unmarried parents today (29%) is actually higher than it was for blacks in the mid-1960's when Daniel Moynihan released his report on the black family that voiced concern about this issue.

Research shows that children growing up in fragile families face greater risks to their well-being and future opportunities than children growing up in more traditional families. Simply put, family formation and the associated resources or lack thereof, are creating a new divide among children.

"The evidence suggests that parents' marital status at the time of their child's birth is a good predictor of longer-term family stability and complexity, both of which influence children's wellbeing," said Sara McLanahan, one of the most authoritative voices on this subject and one of the principal investigators of a seminal study focused on these families. "But as the number of children born to unmarried parents has increased, so has their exposure to poverty and family instability."

According to the groundbreaking Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study:

  • Unmarried parents are much more disadvantaged than married parents. Unmarried parents are more likely to have started parenting in their teens; are more likely to be poor; are more likely to suffer from depression; and are disproportionately African American or Hispanic. One particular finding is especially jarring - nearly 40% of fathers who have children outside of marriage have been incarcerated at some point in their lifetime, and this number is likely an undercount.
  • A large proportion of unmarried parents are in "marriage-like" relationships at the time of their child's birth. One-half of unmarried parents are living together at the time of their child's birth, and another 32% are in 'visiting unions,' defined as romantically involved but living apart. This is contrary to the image we have of the "single mother," giving birth outside of marriage alone with no father by her side.
  • Relationships are unstable. Despite their clearly stated high hopes that they will marry eventually, most unmarried parents do not stay together. The result is that many children experience high levels of instability and complexity. Only 35% of unmarried couples are still living together five years after the birth of their child; given the young age of these parents, those who do not stay together go on to re-partner, exposing their children to increasing numbers of short-term parent figures and half-siblings.
  • Children are doing poorly. Children born to unmarried parents do not fare as well as children born to married parents; single mothers and mothers in unstable partnerships engage in harsher parenting practices and fewer literacy activities with their children than stably married mothers.

"What this suggests," says McLanahan, "is that we must start to think very seriously about policy reforms that will reverse this trend. If these cohabiting couples were long-term, stable relationships as they are in Scandinavian countries, for example, we would not be concerned. But in the United States they are fragile, and children are suffering as a consequence."

As Dr. King said, "When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned." While the country has made critical gains in this area, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that these gains are not lost on our children.

A fact sheet of the findings can be found at:

http:/www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/documents/FragileFamiliesandChildWellbeingStudyFactSheet.pdf

Additional findings are highlighted in The Future of Childen's volume on Fragile Families.

The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study has been following approximately 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000, including a large oversample of children born to unmarried parents. The Study is a joint effort on Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing and Center for Health and Wellbeing and Columbia University's Columbia Population Research Center and The National Center for Children and Families.  The Study is funded through grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development (NICHD), and a consortium of private foundations and other government agencies.

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