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Policy Prescriptions to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

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Most teens would probably say they don't want to become pregnant--in fact 87% of teen pregnancies in 2001 were reportedly unintended (see Figure 1). Even though there have been tens of thousands of teen pregnancies in recent years, teen births in the US have actually declined over the last 20 years, from 61.8 live births per 1,000 females aged 15-19 years in 1991 to 29.4 in 2012. This trend, which is due to factors that include teens making more informed decisions regarding their sexual health, is encouraging and suggests we can continue to make progress in preventing teen pregnancies.

First, we need to understand what makes teens more likely to get pregnant. Isabel Sawhill, Adam Thomas, and Emily Monea, in the Future of Children, outline several plausible explanations including cultural norms of increased acceptance of premarital sex and having children outside of marriage, a lack of positive alternatives to single motherhood, an attitude of fatalism, the high cost and limited availability of contraception, lack of knowledge about contraception and reproductive health, and inconsistent or incorrect use of contraception. The authors point out that these explanations generally fall into the categories of motivation, knowledge, and access.

Next, we can examine possible solutions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a Vital Signs brief outlining what the federal government, health care professionals, parents/caregivers, and teens can do to prevent teen pregnancy. What I like about the CDC's suggestions is that they start where the teen is and show how adults can support teens' healthy development. For example, professionals can encourage teens to delay sexual activity but should also encourage sexually active teens to consider the most effective methods of birth control. Parents can know where their teens are and what they are doing (isn't there an app for that?), especially after school, and talk with their teens about sex.

Finally, are programs that promote these types of solutions worth the cost? Sawhill and colleagues, in their Future of Children article, conducted simulations of the costs and effects of policy initiatives that encouraged men to use condoms (motivation), discouraged teen sexual activity and educated participants about proper contraceptive use (knowledge), and expanding access to Medicaid-subsidized contraception (access). All three had good benefit-cost ratios, suggesting they are excellent social investments that can actually save taxpayer dollars. For more information on how to prevent teen pregnancy and unintended pregnancies in general, see the Fragile Families volume of Future of Children.

Who Needs Fathers?

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With many children being raised by single mothers today, are fathers becoming dispensable or non-essential? Is child rearing more about the quality of parenting than who provides it?

Not necessarily. In a systematic review of published research on the effects of fathers' absence on children, Future of Children Editor-in-Chief Sara McLanahan and colleagues found that the most rigorously designed studies find negative effects on child wellbeing. The strongest evidence relates to outcomes such as high school graduation, children's social-emotional adjustment, and mental health in adulthood.

But an important consideration is the nature of the parents' relationship. In the Fragile Families issue of Future of Children, Robert I. Lerman describes how the capacities and contributions of unwed fathers fall short of those of married fathers, but this varies by the kind of relationship the father has with the child's mother. Clearly, father-child relationships are crucial, but the quality and stability of these relationships are at risk in fragile families.

Phillip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Virginia Knox consider how to tailor existing couple-relationship and father-involvement interventions, which are traditionally intended for married couples, to the needs of unwed parents in fragile families. The authors emphasize that improving the parental relationship, regardless of whether the parents live together, will in turn have a positive effect on fathers' involvement.  Ultimately, improving the parental relationship might also be among the most promising mechanisms of promoting marriage, which in turn could be an important component of reducing family poverty and improving child wellbeing in fragile families. Fathers are needed, and some fathers could use a little help.

Future of Children will return to the topic of parental relationships and the science of marriage with a full issue dedicated to the subject in Fall 2015.

Reducing the Risk of Parental Incarceration

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To reduce children's exposure to the negative effects of having a parent incarcerated (for example, family financial strain, health and social problems, housing insecurity, etc.), Future of Children authors Bruce Western and Christopher Wildeman urged policymakers to limit prison time and provide effective drug treatment for nonviolent drug offenders. In line with this call, Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that the Justice Department would stop perusing mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain nonviolent offenders and promote drug-treatment alternatives to incarceration. The changes, effective immediately, should help to reduce the prison population and the number of children exposed to incarceration.

 

With about half the current prison population meeting the criteria for drug dependence or abuse, effective drug treatment for prisoners and parolees is a serious concern. As the incarceration rate begins to decline, thousands of men and women will be sent back into their communities, and many will need substance abuse treatment. Western and Wildeman report that prisoner reentry programs have been found to reduce recidivism by connecting ex-prisoners to substance abuse treatment services as well as education and employment opportunities.

 

Policymakers and practitioners should also focus on early contact with the criminal justice system. Laurie Chassin notes that substance abuse disorders are common among adolescents in the juvenile justice system and underscores the need for effective screening methods so that youth can be redirected away from the juvenile and criminal justice systems as early as possible. She highlights the role of the youth's social environment and mental health and finds evidence in favor of family-based treatment models.

          

Limiting prison time, providing effective drug-treatment for offenders and ex-prisoners, and identifying and addressing substance-use disorders early on should help to lower the proportion of children exposed to parental incarceration. For more on this topic, see the Future of Children issues on Fragile Families and Juvenile Justice.


Family Relationships Following the Great Recession

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Research from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study suggests that stress or uncertainty about external circumstances can impact family relationships. One recent study by Dohoon Lee, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Sara McLanahan, Daniel Notterman, and Irwin Garfinkel finds that mothers used more harsh parenting practices, such as corporal punishment, following the Great Recession. Moreover, macroeconomic conditions like consumer sentiment (that is, how people feel generally about the economy), rather than actual conditions (for example, local unemployment rate), are associated with harsh parenting.

 

Findings from another study suggest that macroeconomic stress has caused couples to delay or forego separation or divorce, especially among those hardest hit by the recession. Based on research presented in the Future of Children suggesting positive outcomes of marriage for children, such a finding could have good implications for low-conflict families but serious consequences for families experiencing violence or abuse.

 

Future of Children authors Philip A. Cowan, Carolyn Pape Cowan, and Virginia Knox explain that some low-income family intervention programs have begun to address how parents and partners can cope with the stress and uncertainty caused by external circumstances such as a dragging economy. The authors highlight one such program that has had encouraging early results. Participants in the Supporting Healthy Marriage project, a yearlong marriage and relationship education program for couples with children, report less abuse, more positive communication, and greater marital happiness than control-group counterparts.

 

With the proportion of children born to unmarried mothers at more than 40 percent, similar programs for unmarried couples with children are being evaluated. One such project called Building Strong Families found little evidence of relationship quality improvement among participants, but Cowan and colleagues indicate that more analyses are needed to understand these findings. Research on the challenges that unmarried families face can be found in the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families. Also see our issue The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies.

 

From Prison to Postsecondary Education

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For every three people enrolled in a postsecondary institution, one person is under correctional supervision (incarcerated, on parole, or on probation). College has been part of the American Dream for decades, but prisoners and parolees have for the most part been ignored in discussions on improving college enrollment and completion rates.

 

Most high school students would like to achieve some sort of postsecondary education, but many leave high school unprepared for college work. This may be especially true for young adults involved with the criminal justice system, who are more likely to be from poor, racial-ethnic minority, or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds. Indeed, education levels among the correctional population are much lower than among the general population. Some evidence suggests that increasing educational attainment among offenders may effectively reduce recidivism, but few studies have rigorously examined how postsecondary education affects the correctional population.

 

The Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, recently launched by the Vera Institute of Justice, "seeks to demonstrate that access to postsecondary education, combined with supportive reentry services, can increase educational credentials, reduce recidivism, and increase employability and earnings." The initiative will take place in three states over five years, and evaluations will be conducted by the RAND Corporation. At least one of the states, New Jersey, already has correctional postsecondary education programs in place, including Princeton University's Prison Teaching Initiative.


The Future of Children issue on Postsecondary Education highlights the dramatic changes that are taking place in institutions of higher education and the students who attend them. As policymakers and educators make efforts to increase enrollment and improve program quality and completion, they should not forget the 7 million people under correctional supervision and what access to college for them might mean for their families and the nation as a whole.

Literacy for Incarcerated Fathers and Their Children

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Last week's launching of the Digital Public Library of America shows that the landscape of literacy in the US is changing. As technology advances rapidly, educators and researchers should seek new ways to use it effectively, both in school and in the home, to improve literacy among children and families. Future of Children author Jane Waldfogel explains that parents play a major role in children's literacy both early on and throughout the school years. The value that parents place on reading and the degree to which they provide reading materials can make the home environment more or less conducive to literacy. Reading with children and discussing what they are reading are particularly helpful. Parents also boost literacy when they monitor and help with schoolwork, participate at school, and encourage children to read during the summer.

 

Since the Prison Boom, many parents - especially fathers - have been locked up and thus unable to provide such support to their children, placing these children at an even greater disadvantage. However, research by Future of Children author Kathryn Edin and colleagues shows that for some fathers, particularly those with severe substance use problems, prison may serve as a time to rehabilitate and even rebuild bonds with children. A crucial part of this process is education; the U.S. Department of Education reports, "To the extent that prisons are intended as venues for rehabilitation, education has an important role in prison operations. Today, over 90 percent of the federal and state prisons and over 80 percent of private prisons offer some form of educational programs to inmates." The hope is that, as these fathers are released, the education they received while incarcerated will not only make them more employable, but will give them necessary tools to create favorable environments for their children's literacy.

 

Supporting men and fathers in this reentry process is a major focus of collaborations between prison and public libraries, which some argue can help ex-offender fathers to overcome information gaps, such as the digital divide. As WNYC reports, many fathers being released from prison will need to catch up on technology for job seeking and for day-to-day life. In addition, these fathers will not be equipped to give their children adequate opportunities to learn to use technology. Gina Biancarosa and Gina Griffiths find that disadvantaged students are less likely to use technology in sophisticated ways or with adult guidance. To help narrow the gap, they argue that schools should choose and incorporate evidence-based tools for literacy instruction and systematic support for effective use of e-reading technology. One could ask if library partnerships and other community efforts targeting reentering parents could do the same. For more on this topic see the Future of Children issues on Literacy Challenges and Fragile Families.

To Reduce Delinquency, Prevention is Key

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As a New York Times editorial noted recently, although the number of incarcerated juveniles is at a 35-year low, the US continues to lead developed nations in the number of young people it locks up. Incarceration has serious consequences for ex-offenders, including poorer health, lower earnings, and family breakup; thus many states have begun investing in more effective strategies to reduce delinquency. As Peter Greenwood explains in the Future of Children, "The most successful programs are those that prevent youth from engaging in delinquent behaviors in the first place."

 

The Future of Children says that the best evidence points to early intervention, including home-visiting programs aimed at pregnant teens and their at-risk infants, early education programs for disadvantaged young children, and school-based initiatives to prevent drug use and dropping out. Moreover, community-based programs that focus on the family and improving parenting skills have been shown to effectively deter young offenders from future involvement with the justice system.

 

In the Washington Post this week, Future of Children Senior Editor Ron Haskins urged politicians, educators, community leaders, ministers and parents to teach young people that the decisions they make as they transition to adults will greatly influence their circumstances later in life. He cited research showing that of US adults who finish high school, get a full-time job, and wait until age 21 to get married and have children, only about 2 percent live in poverty and about three quarters have joined the middle class. Thus, investing more in prevention than incarceration should more effectively reduce delinquency and improve life outcomes for young adults. See the Future of Children issues on Juvenile Justice, Fragile Families, and School Readiness to learn more about this topic.

Children and the Prison Boom: Finding Solutions

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The era of skyrocketing US incarceration rates since the 1970s has been dubbed the "Prison Boom," and rightfully so. Future of Children authors Christopher Wildeman and Bruce Western report a fivefold rise, from about 100 to 500 prisoners for every 100,000 people. A major concern for policymakers and children's advocates is that many of those incarcerated are parents. Among African American children who grew up during the Prison Boom, one in four had a parent (most often a father) incarcerated at some point during childhood.

 

As the New York Times wrote recently, families and children with an incarcerated father can face considerable hardship, apart from the challenges associated with the father's criminality. While identifying a causal relationship between incarceration and various child and family outcomes is difficult, quality research continues to develop in this area. Recent studies find a link to child behavioral problems and school readiness, as well as housing insecurity and homelessness.

 

There is much discussion about ways to reduce the prison population, from increasing the number of police on the streets, to drug-treatment or faith-based programs. Based on the best research available, the Future of Children's policy recommendations focus on drug offenders and parole violators. Solutions include intensive community supervision, drug treatment when necessary, and more effective responses to parole violation. The White House highlights one program recommended by Wildeman and Western. Project HOPE in Hawaii significantly reduced drug use and other offenses by administering swift, certain, but very short jail stays to probation violators.

 

As local, state, and federal leaders seek more effective alternatives to long jail and prison sentences, they should look to quality research to guide policy. See the Future of Children issue on Fragile Families for more information on this topic.

Growing Inequality for Single Parents

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"As rates of nonmarital childbirth have increased in the United States in the past half-century, a new family type, the fragile family, has emerged. Fragile families, which are formed as the result of a nonmarital birth, include cohabiting couples as well as noncohabiting, single mothers. Such families evoke public concern in part because they are more impoverished and endure more material hardship than married-parent families and have fewer sources of economic support."  Future of Children: Fragile Families- "Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families"

 

Jason DeParle asserts in his article in the NY Times that changes in family structure have helped to broaden income gaps. Americans who are college educated are more likely to marry one another, which brings the advantage of higher dual-income earnings. Women who have not finished college or who are less educated are becoming less likely to marry at all. Not only do they have lower paychecks themselves when compared to the college-educated, but they also lack the advantages of dual-income.

 

As DeParle writes, "estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns--as opposed to changes in individual earnings--may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality.  Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes."

 

In his Economic Inequality and the Changing Family blog, DeParle states, "Inequality has grown much faster for households with children than it has for households over all." Future of Children editor-in-chief Sara McLanahan points out that, "the people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers. The people with less education are more likely to have complex unstable situations involving men who come and go. I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children's life chances."

 

As DeParle points out, "No one has suggested that single parenthood is the sole or even main force driving the increases in inequality, just an important one that is sometimes overlooked. Had single parenthood not continued to increase, there would be less inequality now."

 

Over all, it is important for policy makers to recognize that with rates of nonmarital childbirth at their current level, and potentially rising still, fragile families are likely an enduring fixture among U.S. families. It is thus essential to strengthen policies that both support their economic self-sufficiency and alleviate their hardship during inevitable times of economic distress.  Future of Children: Fragile Families- "Mothers' Economic Conditions and Sources of Support in Fragile Families"

Fragile Families Research at PAA 2012

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This week, demographers from around the world are gathering in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America (PAA), to discuss their research findings on issues related to migration, health, and population wellbeing. Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing is presenting three main initiatives at the conference: The Future of Children, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, and the Princeton Global Network and Child Migration. The Future of Children published a volume on Fragile Families in fall 2010 and researchers continue to build on these findings using the Fragile Families Study data. One example of such work being presented at PAA is the investigation of the role of genes in explaining child behavior outcomes.

 

In the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families, Jane Waldfogel, Terry-Ann Craigie, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn suggest that several factors play important roles in explaining why children in families with unmarried parents may have poorer outcomes than those of two married parents. These likely include parental resources, parent relationship quality, parenting quality, parental mental health, and father involvement. Another key element that should be considered is family instability, which refers to whether children grow up with the same parent(s) that were present at birth and tends to be higher among unmarried parents. It is assumed that children will have more positive behavioral outcomes when there are fewer disruptions or new partners entering and exiting the household, but researchers continue to investigate this hypothesis.

 

One element that has recently gained attention regarding its influence on family stability and child outcomes is genes. To examine the role of genes in child behavior and wellbeing, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an ongoing birth cohort study of about 5,000 children and their parents, the majority of whom are unmarried, collected DNA samples from the children and their mothers around the time of the child's ninth birthday. These genetic data, which will made available through a contract process this fall, are being analyzed with respect to their role in the relationship between family stability and child behavioral outcomes. Early analyses find evidence that genes moderate the relationship between family instability and children's prosocial behavior. As presented at the Population Association of America, authors Colter Mitchell, Sara McLanahan, Daniel Notterman, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn find evidence that for some genotypes, larger increases in prosocial behavior occur among cases in which a non-resident biological father enters the household and larger decreases in prosocial behavior in cases in which the biological father exits the household.

 

As indicated in the Future of Children, there are several observable factors that likely explain why children with unmarried parents often fare worse than those of two-parent families, and the link between family instability and genes is only one component of this complex issue. Future research should provide further insight into the role of these and other elements. More literature on the impact of family structure and instability can be found in the Future of Children volumes on Fragile Families and Marriage and Child Wellbeing. Visit the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing website or email ffdata@princeton.edu for information on the Study and updates on the new genetic data. Also, check out www.futureofchildren.org for more publications on child wellbeing.

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