28 May 2008

Growing Up with a Single Parent: What hurts, What helps

Dear Friends,

We at CUCP have recently come across some really interesting and insightful research on the effects of single parenting on children from the book called Growing Up with a Single Parent: What hurts, What helps by researchers Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur. Their work disaggregates the types of single parent families in a very thoughtful way: all families headed by single parents are not of one kind. Children growing up in families where their primary parent was never married have different outcomes and problems from children growing up in families of divorce and remarriage. One of the most important lessons we can learn from their work is that there are many kinds of single parents and many reasons for single parenting.

Among the findings from their research that we found particularly compelling were:

  • Low income – and the sudden drop in income that is often associated with divorce – is the most important factor in children’s lower achievement in single-parent homes, accounting for about half of the disadvantage. Inadequate parental guidance and attention and the lack of ties to community resources accounts for most of the remaining disadvantage.
  • A mother’s education is generally regarded as the single best predictor of a child’s school achievement and thus it provides a good benchmark against which to evaluate the importance of other variables. Having a mother with less than a high school degree, as compared with having a mother with a high school degree, doubles the risk of dropping out of school.
  • According to our findings, the age of the child at the time of family disruption is not related to the risk of dropping out of school or early childbearing. Children who experience family disruption before they are five years old have about the same chance of dropping out of school and having a child before age twenty as children who experience a disruption during adolescence.
  • Moreover, the number of years of exposure to single parenthood does not seem to matter either. Children who live with a single mother for less than five years are about as successful as children who live with a single mother for more than five years. Even multiple changes in the family structure do not discriminate among children from one-parent families. Children who experience two or more disruptions due to divorces and remarriages have about the same risk of dropping out of school and having a teen birth as children who experience only one disruption.
  • Income accounted for about 50% of the difference between children in single-parent and two-parent families in all three educational outcomes (test scores, college enrollment and college graduation).
  • Children from one-parent families, and especially children who do not have a step-parent attend schools with a higher percentage of minority students and minority teachers than children in two-parent families.
  • 2/3 of the difference between children in single-parent families and two-parent families is due to differences in residential mobility. The rest is due to family income. Income and residential mobility together account for all of the educational disadvantage of children living in single-parent families.

We would like for you to remember a few things from this book:

  1. Not all single parent families are alike. Never-married, divorced, remarried and step-parent families have varying effects on children.
  2. Children from single parent families have a much more difficult time in school and in life than do children from two-parent families.
  3. Disruptive events in a child’s life – whether occurring early or later on – can change the trajectory of their potential success. Income, parental involvement, mobility and social capital – the benefits that kids get from their neighborhoods and communities – are incredibly important to their overall social and academic well-being.
For more information, please contact cucp@theurbanchildinstitute.org.

20 May 2008

Uninsured Children Update

Dear Colleagues,

We’d like to share with you a recent fact sheet produced by the Center for Urban Child Policy at The Urban Child Institute. This fact sheet estimates the population from 0 to 8 (and 0 to 3) in Memphis and Shelby County that is eligible for TennCare, but remains uninsured.

Among the key findings:

  • There are currently 259,476 children between 0 and 8 on TennCare in the state of Tennessee
  • Approximately 45,000 of these children reside in Shelby County (32,000 within the City of Memphis).
  • By a conservative estimate, 21,465 children in the state between 0 and 8 qualify for TennCare but currently lack insurance coverage of any kind.
  • 3,700 of these uninsured children reside in Shelby County with 1,120 in the City of Memphis
  • 1,550 children 0-3 in Shelby County qualify for TennCare but are uninsured.

The Center for Urban Child Policy conducts public policy analysis and outreach as part of The Urban Child Institute in Memphis, Tennessee. The Center is committed to building public will and a sustained political voice for children in order to improve the well-being of all children and their families.

We welcome your questions and comments.


Frances Wright
Doug Imig

12 May 2008

Safety Net Programs Show Holes in the System

Moving people from public assistance to financial independence is a delicate matter. It involves coordinating so many competing elements - child care, food, transportation, utilities, rent, clothing and incidentals. Many families rob Peter to pay Paul, skating by month to month, living paycheck to paycheck because the low-skill, low-wage jobs where they have found employment do not pay a living wage, a salary that will support families with children. The working poor have to make very difficult choices - to keep the lights on or to buy food (pantries and food aid agencies across the country are experiencing shortages presently); to repair the car or to buy medicine for the sick kids; to pay the rent or to fill up the gas tank to get to work. And at least in Memphis, public transportation is not a viable option for many people. Erratic bus schedules and inconvenient bus lines make getting to and from work - with kids and groceries in tow - a mighty challenge.

So some states are trying to help their working poor, the people who have moved from public assistance to paid employment but who are still having trouble getting by. States are giving monthly cash stipends to working adults to help them make ends meet.

From the New York Times article:

The women are pioneers in an emerging social experiment as states across the country try to go beyond simply moving people off welfare. Over the last two years, officials in Arkansas and at least a dozen other states have announced plans to extend the safety net — through monthly cash payments — to thousands of low-income workers struggling to gain a foothold in the work world. Arkansas provides poor working parents with $204 a month, plus bonuses for staying employed, for up to two years. Oregon offers $150 a month for up to a year. Virginia gives $50 a month for up to a year. And the California Legislature is considering a plan, proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, to provide $40 a month to 41,000 working families that receive food stamps. “The goal had been getting parents off of welfare,” said Jack Tweedie of the National Conference of State Legislatures, who counsels states on poverty issues and has advised Arkansas officials. “The emphasis now is much more on work and helping parents stay in work.”

This is a laudable effort. Strengthening the safety net for working families - the adults who are trying their best to get on and stay on their feet - is of utmost importance. It is the right thing to do to care for families with children. Unfortunately, these cash-assistance efforts miss the point: many jobs in our country do not pay a living wage. They do not have a career ladder that provides upward mobility for families. They are jobs for an expendable workforce, often without benefits or full-time employment. They are jobs that do not pay enough for a family to get a leg up and out of poverty, or even low-income status.

An adult earning minimum wage - $5.85/hour - working full-time, year-round will still only make $12,000 per year. For a family of three, the Federal Poverty Level is just over $17,000 - which means that even if there are two adults earning minimum wage in full-time, year-round work, their combined annual income will only be $24,000, which still puts them squarely in the low-income bracket. The added cash-assistance boost will help a little bit, but not enough to address the root causes of poverty: a well-maintained system of institutionalized poverty in which the growing divide between the very rich and the very poor spans wider every year. Barbara Kellerman from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government discusses this divide here.

What we have is a compensatory system, a well-maintained welfare state that subsidizes poverty rather than addressing the problems at its roots. While well-intentioned, programs that throw $40 or $150 here and there at families in need may help temporarily, but they hardly speak to the deeper problems of servitude and cheap labor which keep people from moving up in their careers. State-sponsored charity will not help families in the long run. It will not help the children in these families who are growing up in poverty, in schools where many of their peers are in the same situation, in communities marred by poverty and desperation.

What we need is comprehensive wage reform where all jobs pay a living wage - $10 an hour with benefits or $12 an hour without benefits - and in doing this, families can become financially independent, care for their children, plan for the future and not have to make difficult choices about which bills to pay this month and which to put off until next month.

For more about safety nets and who picks up the pieces when lives fall apart because of sporadic or underpaying and precarious employment, read The Missing Class.

The following is my favorite passage from the book:

Those of us who want women to be able to stand on their own feet do not like to hear that the children the women leave behind during the workday may be doomed to repeat the lives of their poor mothers. But in a world where high-quality child care is available only to the wealthy or the lucky, a child's prospects can be irreparably damaged if her mother disappears for many hours every day, leaving her in the care of someone who lets drug addicts into the house. What matters more, the mother's shot at present-day security or the next generation's potential for future success? At the moment, we may be addressing the problems of the parents, only to see a "sacrificed generation" emerge, a cohort of children condemned by poor schooling or entanglement in the criminal justice system to a life not unlike the one their parents were running hard to escape (p177).

05 May 2008

Libraries make cities stronger

According to a report published in January 2007 by the Urban Libraries Council, libraries are one of the most important threads in the social fabric of communities, especially supporting the development of early literacy skills and childhood education.

One of the things we know best is that what happens early on matters most later in life. A report from the University of Chicago shows that early investments prove to be the most socially and fiscally beneficial:

Public libraries have four key strategies for building early literacy:
  1. Public education campaigns
  2. Parental training workshops
  3. Tailored technical assistance for childcare and other children's service agencies
  4. Implement model literacy programs
The report from the Urban Libraries Council gives several good examples of early childhood literacy programs that have shown positive results.

The Brooklyn Public Library targets "parents and caregivers of babies and toddlers" with multilingual flyers about library programs. They also give new infant goody bags to hospitals that include applications for library cards to help new parents get oriented towards early literacy experiences for their babies.

The Providence Public Library has an initiative called "Cradle to Crayons" which is a "free nine-week program (that) focuses on literacy development of children ages 1-3."

The program has three key components: First, it is designed to introduce young families to the library in a comfortable setting and to develop early literacy skills through songs, rhymes, storytelling and play. Library staff members offer tips that can be used at home to encourage an early interest in reading and learning. Second, it invites local child service agencies to share information on child development, health and safety. Third, it provides Learning and Reading (LARK) Kits that contain ten books, music and visual aids that that parents can check out from the library and use at home with their children.

Public libraries contribute to an overall community sense of well-being and long-term development, starting at the earliest ages through adulthood, reaching the youngest children and their parents and the adults who surround and nurture them in the community.

Given what we know about the role libraries play in promoting early literacy experiences and the positive benefits children and communities reap from this investment, we as a community in Memphis and Shelby County should take a very close look at the role our own libraries play, and the potential they show for encouraging young readers to embark on a literacy journey that will last a lifetime.