Education may matter more than marital status
BY SUZANNE CASSIDY, Staff Writer
A recently published report, "Knot Yet: The Benefits and Costs of Delayed Marriage in America," examines the implications of birth outside of marriage and suggests they aren't good for the children in those circumstances.
"Children born outside of marriage are significantly more likely to be exposed to a revolving cast of caretakers and the social, emotional and financial fallout associated with family instability and single parenthood," W. Bradford Wilcox, a report co-author, says in a press release.
It's true that children raised in two-parent families "tend to have access to greater financial resources than single-parent families," says Caroline L. Faulkner, an assistant professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College. "This is especially the case because the vast majority of single-parent families in the United States are headed by women, and women earn less than men on average."
But while "research suggests that there may be some negative long-term consequences for unmarried mothers and their children ... many of these conclusions have been overblown," Faulkner maintains.
The debate over marital status as a predictor of a family's well-being is likely to go on, as birth outside of marriage continues to be a trend. What does not seem to be a matter of debate is the significance of a single parent's educational status. It's seen as crucial.
This is why organizations such as Mom's House of Lancaster are focused on helping single mothers improve their circumstances by completing their education.
Maryanne O'Neill, executive director of Mom's House, was just 19 when she had her eldest son. Early motherhood didn't derail her life: She and her husband had the support of their families, she says, and she was able to get a college degree.
Mom's House, a faith-based organization, offers low-income single mothers -- who often lack the kind of family backing O'Neill had -- a study space, tutoring and academic support, parenting classes and free child care.
A high school diploma, at minimum, is "absolutely critical" to a young mother's future, says Gail Rittenhouse, executive director of Milagro House, which provides education, housing and counseling to women and their children who are experiencing homelessness.
"Try to find a job now without a GED," Rittenhouse says. "And if you do, what's your pay scale going to be? Are you ever going to be self-sustaining? I would say the chances are extremely low."
Unmarried, undereducated moms in their 20s have been called "the new teen moms," but in at least one respect, they have it harder than their teenage counterparts.
A young mother under the age of 22, who is receiving cash assistance, or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, can pursue her GED or high school diploma without having to fulfill a work requirement.
If she's over 22, however, she is required to work, or perform some work-related activity, 20 hours a week, if she is pursuing a stand-alone GED, said Donna Kirker Morgan, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare.
O'Neill maintains that the kinds of low-skill jobs women have to take to continue getting cash assistance often don't pay a living wage or enable them to break out of the cycle of poverty.
But Morgan said the work requirement is in keeping with the goal of self-sufficiency.
"We do try to meet individual needs, whether it's a young mom or someone older," she says.
When birth outside of marriage is examined, mothers are often the focus. Faulkner, of F&M, says fathers are too often overlooked.
"The educational, occupational and financial challenges among working class and poor young men are an essential part of this story," Faulkner says. "Young women aren't willing to take a chance on marriage to young men in precarious financial circumstances. But research reveals that young men often want to be devoted fathers and many of them try to do their best within their economic constraints.
"As a society, we can do a lot more to support young fathers' -- and young mothers' -- efforts to deal with the challenges that they face in being good parents," she says.