19 February 2012

Coming To Terms With Complicated

Among mothers of all ages, a majority — 59 percent in 2009 — are married when they have children. But the surge of births outside marriage among younger women — nearly two-thirds of children in the United States are born to mothers under 30 — is both a symbol of the transforming family and a hint of coming generational change. . . . When Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a top Labor Department official and later a United States senator from New York, reported in 1965 that a quarter of black children were born outside marriage — and warned of a “tangle of pathology” — he set off a bitter debate.

By the mid-1990s, such figures looked quaint: a third of Americans were born outside marriage. . . . Now the figure is 41 percent — and 53 percent for children born to women under 30, according to Child Trends, which analyzed 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Still, the issue received little attention until the publication last month of “Coming Apart,” a book by Charles Murray, a longtime critic of non-marital births.

Large racial differences remain: 73 percent of black children are born outside marriage, compared with 53 percent of Latinos and 29 percent of whites. And educational differences are growing. About 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less, according to Child Trends.

Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.

From the New York Times, complete with interviews in Lorain, Ohio, down the road from where I went to college.

Another recent news story looked at another complicating nuance. About a quarter of co-parents who no longer live together still have a romantic relationship and that is good for their children:

When low-income cohabiting couples with children decide to no longer live together, that doesn't necessarily mean the end of their romantic relationship. A new study suggests that about one in four of these couples who split their households still maintain some type of romantic relationship. . . . [Claire] Kamp Dush's work included 1,624 mothers who were cohabiting at the birth of their child. The mothers were followed for five years after the birth. About 46 percent the sample split their households within three years, and 64 percent did so within five years. Of those who moved apart, 75 percent ended their romantic relationship. About three-quarters of these black mothers no longer lived with their partner after five years, compared to 52 percent of Hispanic mothers and 57 percent of white and other-race mothers. These black mothers were also significantly more likely than Hispanic and white mothers to continue a romantic relationship after moving away from their partner. . . .

[C]ouples who stayed connected after moving apart tended to have two factors going for them: they had more relationship "investments" with each other and had less family chaos.

Relationship investments included things like pooling money, having a joint checking account or credit card, or having a second baby together. "These investments help bring couples together and make it less likely that they will totally separate," she said.

"But if you have a lot of family chaos -- things like inflexible job arrangements, child care problems and constant moving -- it is harder to create and maintain family routines and time together, and hence cohabiting parents are more likely to permanently separate." The study found that each additional indicator of family chaos increased the odds of a couple breaking up by 22 percent.

"There are clear disadvantages to the simultaneous end of living together and a romantic relationship, particularly when children are involved," Kamp Dush said. "The negative effects of divorce for children are clearly documented and cohabitation dissolution likely has similar impacts on children when it ends in breakup."

From a policy perspective, [Researcher] Kamp Dush said the results point to the importance of providing good and flexible jobs and quality child care to low-income parents in order to help them stay together.

"If a mother can't change her work schedule to deal with sick kids or other issues, it just adds to the chaos of their family life. And more chaos means it is less likely they will stay romantically connected to their partners," she said.

I've spilled enough ink for now on the question of why people divorce, which goes hand in hand with the question of why they don't get married in the first place, and why co-habiting couples break up. Take this as a give for the time being. It happens, and it happens a lot. It has happened notwithstanding that fact, as Krugman, commenting on Murray's book observed, that crime and teen pregnancies are at record lows.

Families these days are complicated. Some require a program just to figure out whose who and how they are related. There are cohabiting parents whose children from prior relationships must blend together with them. There are people with children in new relationships who barely acknowledge that their children from prior relationships exist. There are families who bring children of a relative whose life has crashed and burned into their life. There are ex-spouses whose relationship is so tense that restraining orders are necessary, people who don't have their ex-spouse's name in their cell phone contacts, and ex-wives who trust their ex-husbands to change the oil in their car or handle their legal issues for them. There are people who have had three or more spouses, one of them in the race to be the next President of the United States. As people live longer, even people who have never divorced themselves and never had a close relative divorce can end up with a passel of step-relatives. Throw in same sex couples, sometimes with children, and sometimes with ex-spouses, and further below the radar, polyamorous couples, and life can get really complicated.

Not infrequently, court orders further complicate matters. But, the court system, which was designed to handle one time interactions between strangers or business acquaintances in situations where one claims to have been wronged by the other is ill suited to managing long term relationships in complicated families related to children who stubbornly insist on constantly growing up and changing from the way they were the last time their parents and custodians came before a court.

There are disagreements over how we ended up in such a complicated state, perhaps the real problem is that cupid has developed a drug problem and gotten trigger happy, but it seems clear that there is no end in sight, so we're going to have to learn to cope with a new more complex reality, muddling through with civility and a case by case point of view that doeesn't assume too much.

A related and lingering issue is that the state often takes children away from their parents, generally following serious instances of abuse or neglect, but often seems to offer up an alternative only marginally better, and sometimes even worse, in the foster care system. The abuse and neglect that happens shows a couple of clear patterns. First, having an unrelated adult in the household, like a stepparent or mother's boyfriend, dramatically increases the likelihood that there will be abuse and neglect. Second, neglect is correlated rather strongly to financial stress, which is also frequently a driving force behind families falling apart.

Our Governor in Colorado is hard at work trying to shape up a child services system for the state that doesn't let as many cases of abuse and neglect fall through the cracks. But, it is hard to see a reform of foster care really producing sustained improvement. Nobody is asking that we return to the days of orphanages, and nobody has much in the way of concrete comprehensive proposals for reform on either side of the partisan divide.

What does seem to be increasingly clear is that a lot of cases in which there is neglect or a family does fall apart could be prevented if those families had faced less financial stress, less "family chaos", and received more support before it all got to be too much and something bad happened. Families try to hold each other together with love, but love doesn't pay the rent and buy diapers. Lots of people do find love, even in a hopeless place. But, sustaining relationships in hopeless circumstances is more than most people can handle.

The single biggest decline in child abuse and neglect happens when children go to school. In part, this may be because it prevents children from being isolated. In part, it may be because older children are less vulnerable to serious harm in a momentary lapse of parental attention or loss of parental control. But, equally important, it eases the economic burdens of child care for financially stressed young families - sometimes in the form of opportunity costs, sometimes in the form of dollars paid to child care providers. And financial insecurity can wreck as much damages as long term low average earnings. Periods of unemployment or surprise big expenses can be non-survivable events for families trying to stay in tact.

Upper middle class families that are complicated have the resources to navigate complicated with some degree of success and to bend a system not designed for their situations sufficiently to meet their needs. Less affluent families often don't.

One can point the finger at welfare as culprit, but really, the bigger culprit as an economy in which stability has vanished, and more for some than for others. Racial disparities in family patterns and trends over time for different social classes and generations, tend to track unemployment figures pretty closely. One can point to a feeble system of unemployment benefits, but that system wouldn't be very important if the private economy were providing stable employment at living wages for more people.

If one adopts the philosophy that government doesn't create jobs, despite the fact that it is demonstrably untrue, one ought to also properly assign blame for the economic woes people experience to a private sector that doesn't behave like Econ 101 says it should by putting every resource to use in a maxmimally efficient way even in the absence of meaningful regulation.

Alas, like complicated families, an economy in which few people have any security, and less elite employees are cast about by the changing economic tides without any regard to their needs, seems to be an inevitability. Whatever macroeconomists may understand about interest rates, GDP growth, and public sector deficits, few of them really have a solid grasp and understanding of the underlying forces that are changing qualitative differences in how our economy is structured and organizes, that drives increasing social class divides and economic insecurity for families. This makes consensus solutions harder to devise.

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