Family Breakup and Income Are Linked, Census Data Reveal
WASHINGTON--A Census Bureau report showing that poor families are likelier than more affluent ones to experience a marital breakup spotlights the need for a range of supports--from health care to child care--to put families on more secure ground, child- and family-policy specialists said last week.
The report, released Jan. 15, is the bureau's first study designed to shed light on the role of social and economic factors in family formation and dissolution.
Based on monthly data drawn from the bureau's Survey of Income and Program Participation between 1983 and 1988, the study found that poor two-parent families were twice as likely to dissolve within a two-year period as those that were not poor. The study involved more than 33,000 households.
Breakup rates for poor and nonpoor Hispanic families were the least disparate--11 percent versus 9 percent. But the rate for poor white families was 12 percent, versus 7 percent for nonpoor white families.
The gap was even wider for black families: 21 percent of the couples in poverty broke up, compared with 11 percent of those who were not poor.
The federal poverty threshold for a family of four was about $14,000 in 1991.
"It appears that stresses arising from low income and poverty may have contributed substantially to discontinuation rates'' for two-parent families, the report says.
In the past two decades, "there has been an emphasis on the rise of one-parent families as a cause of poverty,'' noted Donald J. Hernandez, the report's author and the chief of the Census Bureau's marriage- and family-statistics branch. "These results show that the process is certainly not one way.''
While it is not surprising that poverty can precede and contribute to marital separation, the data dramatize yet another dimension of poverty's effects on children, experts said in interviews last week.
Past research has shown that poor children are at greater risk for a range of academic and social problems, noted Arloc Sherman, a program associate with the Children's Defense Fund. The new data offer "one more sign of the enormous number of terrible consequences for children of poverty,'' he said.
"We can't have strong family values as a nation until we start valuing families and making sure that all families are on secure economic footing,'' Mr. Sherman added.
Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested that a "compositional change'' may have affected the census findings. The trend away from early marriage among more affluent baby boomers may mean more of those marrying are younger and less educated--traits also linked with divorce, he pointed out.
The report states that "two-parent families maintained by young adults or by persons with low educational attainments had higher discontinuation rates, in general, than [those] maintained by older or more highly educated adults.''
Cause and Effect
Poverty can be both a cause and an effect of family breakup, the study suggests.
While "a substantial portion of the poverty among newly formed mother-child families'' represented a continuation of their economic status before the parents' marital separation, the report observes, other women and children became poor only after a family breakup.
Thirty-four percent of the newly formed white mother-child families and nearly half the black mother-child families emerging from nonpoor households fell into poverty after a breakup, the study found.
Families in which fathers were unemployed had higher breakup rates than those in which they worked, the study found.
At the same time, however, two-parent families in which both parents worked full time were more likely to break up than those in which the father worked full time and the mother worked part time.
That finding may reflect stresses associated with the need for both parents to work full time or with "the difficulty in juggling two full-time jobs with providing child care,'' Mr. Hernandez said. A couple working full time also may find it financially easier to separate, he noted.
Judith Wallerstein, the executive director of the Center for Families in Transition in Corte Madeira, Calif., and the author of a book on the effects of divorce on children, said the impact of marital breakups may be amplified in poor families.
Not only can money pressures increase parental anxiety, anger, and even violence, she noted, but the children can also "become very worried about their parents and what's going to happen.''
Counseling young people on the financial implications of marriage might help head off breakups, suggested Judith Weitz, the coordinator of KidsCount, a project that compiles state-by-state data on child well-being.
But attacking the larger poverty issue, she said, should entail such steps as indexing the minimum wage for inflation and expanding the federal earned-income tax credit; investing more in dropout prevention and job training; and insuring access to child care and family leave.
Bernice Weissbourd, the president of the Family Resource Coalition, a network of family-service professionals, noted that some measures addressing those issues have been introduced in Congress or are expected to come up under the Clinton Administration. But "it has to be a total package,'' she said.
A separate report issued this month holds out hope that the right blend of economic and social policies could "virtually eliminate'' child poverty by early in the next century.
If current trends continue, the report from a poverty-research center at Tufts University says, the number of poor children could rise from the current level of 14.3 million to more than 20 million in 20 years.
But that course could be shifted, it maintains, "if the new Administration and Congress are able to create and implement a combination of economic and social policies which reduce child poverty with the effectiveness of the years of the 1960's.''
Copies of "Two Americas: Alternative Futures for Child Poverty in the U.S.,'' are available for $6 each from the Center on Hunger, Poverty, and Nutrition Policy, Tufts University, 11 Curtis Ave., Medford, Mass. 02155.
Copies of the census report, "When Households Continue, Discontinue, and Form,'' Series P-23, No. 179, are available for $3.75 each from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.