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To fight wealth gap, save the family

The biggest predictor of family economic status is not race or geography, but whether households are headed by one parent or two. Until we address the reality of family breakup, we can’t effectively fight that key cause of family poverty. Here are five ways to keep families together.

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President Obama walks with daughters Sasha and Malia, first lady Michelle Obama, and mother-in-law Marian Robinson to church in Washington on Inauguration Day, Jan. 21.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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"We, the people,” said President Obama, “understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.”

That inaugural statement implies a worthy goal. To make progress, though, we’ll have to face squarely the issue most likely to shatter a family’s economic prospects: the separation of the parents who head it.

Statistically, the biggest predictor of family economic status is not race or geography, but whether households are headed by one parent or two. That’s why a family headed by a single white mother is nearly three times more likely to be poor than a family headed by married black parents. In fact, among all children living with a single mom, well more than a third live in poverty.

We can and should try to improve educational and job opportunities for single parents as well as support services. But it will always be tough for one-adult teams to compete with two-adult teams.

Overwhelmingly, one-adult teams occur because two involved parents tried to be a family, but fell apart. Until we address the reality of family breakup and find a way to help, we can’t effectively fight that key cause of family poverty.

Today, 41 percent of US babies are born to unmarried mothers – but it’s inaccurate and misleading to call them all single mothers.

As shown in a leading study, most unmarried mothers (82 percent) are still romantically involved with the baby’s father when the baby is born, in most cases living together, and the two parents hope and intend to raise their child together. So, in reality, for every 10 American babies, on average, six are born to a married couple, three to an unmarried but involved couple, and only one to a mother not romantically involved with the baby’s father.

This presents an important opportunity. Studies show that when parents stay together, most families benefit. Parents tend to get and hold jobs, family wealth increases, kids do better in school, and family members generally report better health and happiness than in single-parent families. Communities gain through higher tax revenue and lower social costs.

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