The “Parenting Problem” is a “Poverty Problem”

"We have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem," Mike Petrilli writes at Flypaper. I agree that parenting matters greatly to a child's academic success or failure, and in fact may be the single largest determining factor. But Petrilli concludes that the best way to solve the "parenting problem" is through cultural messaging promoting marriage and stigmatizing divorce, so that kids benefit from growing up in two-income households. This ignores, I think, the concrete reality of life in many low-income neighborhoods, where many women are making a rational choice when they remain single.

Here in New York, for example, only one of every four young black men has a job. The communities from which these men hail have also been decimated by the drug war; 17 percent of adult black males have been incarcerated, compared to 2.6 percent of white men. In addition, low-income women, regardless of race, are three times more likely to experience violence from an intimate partner.

In other words, as sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas demonstrate in one of my favorite books, Promises I Can Keep, low-income women often prefer to remain unmarried because the men in their lives–men facing chronic unemployment in the legitimate economy, or who may be addicted or engaged in criminal behaivior–simply do not make stable husbands or fathers. 

If we want to get to the root causes of the "family values" issues in poor neighborhoods, we need to think not only about culture, but take a broad approach to social and economic policy-making, one that reforms the drug war, creates jobs, and, yes–educates people of all ages about the benefits of delaying childbearing and forming strong marriages. 

5 thoughts on “The “Parenting Problem” is a “Poverty Problem”

  1. Sam Chaltain

    I’m glad you went a step further than my barrage of mid-morning Tweets, Dana, in responding to Mike’s piece – although you didn’t make the point I thought you were going to make, which is the inextricable link between living in poverty and having the capacity to fully meet the developmental needs of kids. It’s still possible, of course, and there are a ton of poor parents of all colors who do it all the time. It’s also true that in every school I’ve ever worked — and in both of the DC-area schools in which I’m now spending the bulk of my time — a lot of the poor parents are not currently doing at home what some of the middle class families are doing, and the ones I’ve met are eager to learn how to better support the needs of their kids at home, from establishing regular nightly rituals to making the habit of reading to them each night. Making this statement is in no way suggesting that only poor families have problems to sort through – it is, however, acknowledging that families who aren’t living in poverty are more likely to have the mental and physical “space” necessary for establishing a more supportive environment that can meet the many developmental needs of children. That’s why poverty is such a major issue, and it’s also why the continued arguments in ed reform about whether poverty is or isn’t a factor — a false dichotomy that is reinforced by the title of Mike’s piece — are such a waste of time. OF COURSE it matters, and OF COURSE school communities and families can begin working right away to alleviate some of the ways it can be most stultifying to youth development. The sooner we can all accept that as the starting ground for conversation, the sooner our conversations will be less superficial and more helpful to the schools and communities we wish to serve.

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  2. Dana Goldstein

    Sam, thanks for this smart comment. I totally agree that institutions/government/advocates/schools can do a lot to help ALL parents, regardless of income level, make more informed choices regarding reading, nutrition, screen time, etc etc. I just wanted to respond specifically to Mike’s interest in marriage and divorce, since this is something that comes up frequently, and the sociological literature on this is clear: Middle-class messaging on marriage has ALREADY penetrated among the poor. The reason many low-income men and women wait to marry is because they feel they aren’t economically stable enough to plan a wedding and set up a shared home that is independent from other relatives. Why middle-class “values” on childbearing has NOT penetrated as deeply is a more complex question, but Edin and Kefalas conclude that it has to do with motherhood being the core “adult” transition in neighborhoods where higher education and good jobs are often not realistic hopes.

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  3. Rachel Levy

    You (Dana) and Sam bring up some great points and respond very well to Mike Petrilli’s post.

    When I read pieces such as his, I have some different (immediate) reactions. I can’t help but wonder why those who see the increase in divorce, occurrence of teen pregnancy, and erosion of the two-parent family as a societal woe and (one) cause of the achievement gap, don’t advocate more for gay marriage (or at least stop advocating against it)? For gay couples to adopt or become foster parents? Furthermore, what about ensuring and increasing access of poor women and teenagers (and well, all women and teenagers) to birth control, family planning, women’s healthcare, and sex education?

    It seems, especially in my state of Virginia, that the very people who bemoan the death of the two-parent family and occurrence of single motherhood and teen pregnancy advocate for policies that disallow marriage and child-rearing for some committed couples and restrict women’s access to healthcare and birth control. This makes no sense if your goal is to increase the number of two-parent families and decrease teenage and out-of-wedlock child birth.

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  4. Harvardancer

    I think it is odd that Petrilli’s conclusion about the parenting problem is that children need two parents, not because of the extra love, care, and attention two parents could provide, but because of the extra income. My husband and I are poor, but we choose to have a stay at home parent so that our daughter is nutured and educated in the way that we feel will benefit her the most. I see plenty of two-income families who will never have this special bond with their child. I guess Petrilli is right…it is a parenting problem, and not just relegated to the lower class!

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