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Opinion: Yes, families still matter

Let’s admit that without a healthy family, kids suffer – sometimes for life.

  • Wednesday, March 3, 2021 12:58pm
  • Opinion

By Mike Clemens

While social injustice and systemic racism attract media, one question remains: do families matter? Yes, because that’s where young lives start. Analysis of chronic socio-economic problems without considering the status and impact of families must be considered incomplete.

Scholars planning to confront complex issues usually try to learn from history. Past studies reveal: a “tangle of pathologies,” and “breakdown of the nuclear family” as a “fundamental source of weakness.”

Intact families help children navigate many challenges to their becoming responsible adults. Especially in single-parent homes, kids can be developmentally neglected. Without age-appropriate guidance, then Madison Avenue, Hollywood, Silicon Valley and peers increasingly shape young minds, not parents.

The Moynihan Report, a baseline study done at the beginning of LBJ’s War on Poverty, raised concerns about “high nonmarital birthrates.” The Urban Institute updated several statistics; troubling trends continue. Traditional families are in decline, particularly among some groups.

All single moms face adversity; many don’t overcome their status. Without a father, what happens to kids born to unwed mothers? Single-parent households, often headed by a woman, statistically begin and usually remain poor.

Research shows that poor kids don’t do as well as rich kids in school. By the time a child turns 3, there’s a significant word gap between the richest and poorest children.

About a third of those entering kindergarten lack needed language skills. “Learn to read, read to learn” remains good advice. Kids who fall behind in reading may never catch up; some drop out.

Parents who read to their children often create an emotional bond as they teach them to use words. Daycare keeps kids safe, but usually can’t offer the custom nurture that parents provide their own during teachable moments.

Before children reach school age, they’ve developed major aspects of their personality. Once developmental windows close, educational challenges increase if preschoolers don’t get what they need. Thus, many try to help the poor before they begin school; they need it.

Why does school matter? K-12 presents opportunities to learn. Jobs require employees who have learned and can learn even more. Marginally educated young adults find it difficult to get a good job. From now on, lifelong learning will matter even more.

Many of society’s existing problems get worse when people can’t find work because “the best social program is a good job.”

While the K-12 educational system does its best for all classroom occupants, not all become or remain good students. Some of today’s high school graduates seem ill-equipped to face a fast-paced world that now requires creative adaptability.

One time-tested recipe to avoid poverty involves: 1) finishing at least high school, 2) getting a full-time job, and 3) waiting until age 21 to get married and have children.

Brookings Institute research found that “of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class.”

Recent congressional hearings spelled out specifics of inequity: criminal justice, education, health and wealth. Problems in each area correlate to the circumstances of one’s early childhood.

While governments, corporations, and non-profits can help poor families, they don’t start them – people do. Individual choices create young lives. Families have always been society’s basic building blocks, but kids having kids often creates difficulties.

Promiscuity contributes to single-parent households and related difficulties. One impact of widespread church decline may be the increasing failure of young adults to see the community value of sexual morality and self-respect.

While media focuses on current issues, our collective future may depend on better decision-making by those starting families. Knowledgeable policy-makers know that complex social problems don’t have easy answers and aren’t solved by just adding money.

While politicians typically try short-term responses, long-term strategies should at least seriously consider the concept of preventing predictable problems.

Socio-economic solutions shouldn’t focus just on race — only one dimension of today’s complex issues. Regardless of race, many kids from broken homes struggle both in school and in later life.

Even children from two-parent homes (none perfect) face challenges growing up today.

Let’s admit that without a healthy family, kids suffer – sometimes for life.

Let’s admit that something besides race may be among the major causes of widespread social problems.

• Mike Clemens is a former statewide budget analyst. He resides in Juneau. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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