But those opportunities are lost when families fall apart. Close to half of all US marriages end in divorce, and breakups among unmarried parenting couples are even more common.
There’s a lot that we can do to help families stay and even thrive together. We don’t need expensive new programs, and we can almost certainly save money in the long run. These key strategies can help:
1. Seize the moment. The first year of a baby’s life is a crucial window of opportunity. Right then, when parents have high hopes for raising their child together – but also face the high stress of infancy – it’s essential to help families meet challenges together.
2. Serve families as families. Many services for vulnerable infants tend to be offered primarily to mothers, or to mothers and fathers separately, perhaps on the assumption that unmarried parents aren’t a long-term team. A program teaching safe infant care to low-income new parents, for example, may offer classes or home visits primarily to mothers, with perhaps a once-a-week support group for dads.
Housing described as a family shelter may accommodate only women and children. Housing vouchers and subsidized leases are often issued in the mother’s name, allowing eviction later if the father is there. Fearing the loss of services, moms may avoid even mentioning the dad.
If we want to help families, we need to treat and serve them as families. Unless there are specific reasons that separate services are needed (such as safety in domestic abuse cases), services should routinely be offered to two-parent families together.
3. Raise public awareness. Attitudes affect aspirations. If young people perceive that marriage is outmoded and two-parent families may not benefit children, they’ll have little reason to work their way through tough times of family life.
But suppose they were to regularly hear the research-based message that a healthy, committed two-parent family is possible even for couples from modest circumstances. Then, the hard work of family life would be encouraged.