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U.S. Families on the Rebound
Family life in the United States seems to have turned the corner — for the better.
Data from the 2000 Census provides evidence that the decades-long trend of increases in single-parent families has stopped.
During the last five years the share of children born to unmarried mothers has stabilized and the divorce rate has continued to fall, according to the July edition of the Population Today newsletter. Single-parent families are no longer on the increase, it reported.
This reverses a weakening in family life that began several decades ago. In 1960, 9% of children lived in single-parent families, while by 2000 this had rocketed to 28%. In many large urban areas — Atlanta; Detroit; Washington, D.C. — more than half the children lived in single-parent families, according to the 1990 Census.
In 1995, however, things began to change. Between 1996 and 2000 the percentage of children in single-parent families began to stabilize at 29%, and edged down to 28% in 2000. The drop is largely due to the decline in the share of children living with a divorced parent, from 17.3% in 1996 to 15.6% in 2000.
The Population Today analysis noted that since the mid-1990s, lawmakers have made reducing the number of single-parent families a priority in the reform of federal and state welfare legislation. Not only has Congress recently acted to phase out the "marriage tax," but the budget proposed by President George W. Bush for the fiscal year 2001 provides $64 million to fund community and religious groups that promote fatherhood and marriage education.
More mothers are also opting to stay at home with their newborn babies for at least a year before returning to work. According to the Associated Press on Oct. 18, the Census Bureau reported that of the 3.9 million women age 15 to 44 who had babies between July 1999 and June 2000, about 55% returned to work or were actively seeking work within a year of giving birth. That was down from a record high of 59% in 1998.
Problems remain, however. About 1.2 million women gave birth out of wedlock in the 12 months preceding the June 2000 survey — a full 31% of all births during that period.
One of those promoting the family through government programs is Wade Horn, recently named assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services. Horn, who was president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, believes marriage is part of the solution to welfare problems.
According to a Sept. 24 article in the Chicago Tribune, Horn believes that children raised in two-parent families are better off than those who have only one to rely on. At the same time, Horn said he has no intention of discriminating against single mothers, because doing so would simply make kids suffer.
The 1996 federal welfare law that brought about fundamental changes in the system must be renewed next year, and the Bush administration is formulating its position on making reforms, Horn said.
Horn would like to see Congress make clear that states are supposed to be encouraging marriage, not just two-parent families. The government also should pay for premarital education classes for low-income people considering marriage, he has said in the past.
Marriage promotion is not only coming from the government. Five years ago Michael and Harriet McManus founded a charity, Marriage Savers, which promotes programs that advocate marriage.
Marriage Savers has an annual budget of only $231,000, according to an article Aug. 9 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The McManuses hope their charity and others like it will get a serious financial investment from the federal government to help them expand their work, the article noted.
With the divorced and single-parent families accounting for a large number of the impoverished, Michael McManus argues that federal involvement in the marriage question hardly constitutes meddling.
Since its start in 1996, Marriage Savers says it has helped to lower the divorce rate in such places as Modesto, California, one of the 140 cities in which clergy and others are implementing the charity's programs. McManus says that his touting of a "community marriage policy" to church leaders in Modesto helped reduce the rate of broken marriages by nearly 50%.
Another private initiative is being organized by the American Association of Christian Counselors. In late August a meeting of the association proposed to its members the idea of training 100,000 married couples over the next five years to be mentors for people soon to be married, or those working on their marriages.
The association draws its members from the evangelical churches. According to the New York Times on Sept. 1, the association's president, Tim Clinton, said the interest in counseling among evangelicals reflected a broader trend in American culture. Church members have begun demanding more help from their pastors to promote marriage. A recent survey by the Barna Research Group found that born-again Christians were about as likely to divorce as other Americans.
A Social Revolution
These and other programs have caught the eye of Melanie Phillips, a reporter with the Sunday Times of London, who recently published a book, "America's Social Revolution," on U.S. welfare reforms.
Phillips, who would like to see Britain follow in the same steps, notes the importance of involving government in marriage promotion. She quotes Jerry Regier, director of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, who rejects the idea that such action means an undue influence in private lives.
Regier argues: "We aren't moralizing or telling people how to live their lives but changing the incentives. The key is to encourage marriage for the good of society while not denigrating other lifestyles. If people make certain choices because of bad government policy and then government has to pick up the pieces and pay for those choices, then it's very much government's business."
John Paul II also recently pointed out the importance of the family for society. The Pope wrote a letter to the vicar of Rome, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, to mark the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the apostolic exhortation "Familiaris Consortio" last weekend.
In his letter, John Paul II explained that the Church insists so much on the family and marriage because humanity's destiny depends on the family. Our happiness, our ability to give a sense to our existence, and our very future are all linked to the family, the Pope said.
Melanie Phillips observes that many of the private groups promoting marriage are of Christian inspiration. Many of these programs use religion to deliver a social service that holds people accountable for their behavior.
While Phillips observes that there are good and bad religious programs, she also points out faith projects "are a significant factor" in the revival of civil society and can be a way of injecting new values into social problems. For millions of one-parent households, that's good news.
ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.
Reprinted with permission from Zenit — News from Rome. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2001 Zenit