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Enough to Make a Kid Smile

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An analysis of 2000 census data holds the cheering news that the proportion of children who live with a single mother dropped by 8% in the five years before the national count. The census also revealed that for the first time since Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as a White House aide in 1965, predicted the breakup of the black family, that trend too could be reversing. If these trends hold, the two-parent family may be on the rise--good news for children.

Between 1995 and 2000, the percentage of black children living with married parents rose from 34.8% to nearly 39%. The jump coincided with national welfare reform, approved by Washington five years ago, and a long economic boom that generated millions of jobs.

Moynihan recognized the importance of jobs in his controversial report, “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action.” At that time, 76% of black children were born to two-parent families, a figure considered shockingly bad. Moynihan predicted that that percentage would worsen and proposed, among other remedies, a return to twice-daily mail deliveries to create more jobs, which in theory would encourage marriage and stable families.

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Washington failed to respond, and within three decades of Moynihan’s report nearly 68% of all black children, and at least 30% of all children in the United States, were born to unmarried women. As more one-parent families formed, child poverty, delinquency and reliance on welfare jumped. Five years ago Congress and then-President Bill Clinton put time limits on public assistance. That prod is now being credited by policymakers for increasing marriages among poor parents.

In a separate study of Minnesota welfare recipients released last year, the number of marriages increased and existing marriages stabilized among families making the transition from welfare to work. They were given extra money and subsidized child care during the transition. That report, by the nonprofit Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., tracked 14,000 welfare recipients, half in a supportive experimental program that began in 1994 and the other half on traditional assistance. In addition to producing the positive marriage statistics, the study determined that children’s behavior and school performance improved in the welfare-to-work families.

The slight trend in favor of two-parent families should be encouraged, but there will be tough debate over how to do so fairly. The Bush administration has plans to build policies that promote marriages and responsible fatherhood into next year’s reauthorization of the 1996 welfare reform legislation. For instance, faith-based groups and community groups would get grants to encourage two-parent families and help men become active fathers. Under other possible incentives, married parents who applied for public housing would be allowed to jump to the front of the line and children with married parents could enroll first in Head Start. Such proposals raise questions of fairness to poor children who live with divorced, never-married or single parents or grandparents.

Research is scant on “pro-marriage” efforts, but that shouldn’t stop this debate. The census and other data clearly show that a child growing up with two parents is less likely to be poor than a child who lives with a single mother.

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