Who’s responsible for poor kids?

Matilde Ascencio holds her 18-month-old daughter Vitzal as she waits in line to receive food aid in a Chicago suburb. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The U.S. is not the land of opportunity for the children of poorly educated parents, writes social scientist Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

When Putnam finished high school in 1959 in a small Ohio town, factory jobs provided steady paychecks for classmates who didn’t go to college. Now there are few steady jobs for workers with only a high school diploma.

“There’s such instability in the families of poor kids that 60 to 70 percent of them — of all races — are living in single-parent families,” Putnam told NPR’s Scott Simon. In the wealthiest fifth of families, only 6 percent of children are raised by a single parent.

If you have two educated parents, “you’ll have a larger vocabulary, you’ll know more about the world,” Putnam said, and such children will have “a lot of adults in their life that are reaching out to help them. They tell them about what it means to go to college.”

Not-very-educated single parents, short on time and money, are less likely to take their kids to soccer practice, dance class or church, Putnam found.

Sympathy for poor children isn’t enough, writes New York Times columnist David Brooks. We need to reintroduce social norms, such as what it means to be a good father.

These norms “were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another,” he writes. We don’t want to hold people responsible for their choices.

People born into the most chaotic situations can still be asked the same questions: Are you living for short-term pleasure or long-term good? Are you living for yourself or for your children? Do you have the freedom of self-control or are you in bondage to your desires?

Privileged people could do better too, Brooks concludes, though he’s not clear on how.

Liberals made a “historic mistake” 50 years ago when they rejected the Moynihan report’s warning “that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable,” writes Nicholas Kristof, also in the New York Times.

“From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history,” wrote Moynihan. “A community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families … never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Kids with one parent achieve less


 Students from single-parent families do worse in math than students living with two parents in nearly all countries, but the single-parent achievement gap is especially large in the U.S., writes Ludger Woessmann in Education Next. U.S. children with a single parent are one grade level behind, on average. And the U.S. has a high percentage of one-parent families.

Adjusting for socioeconomic background, such as parental education and the number of books at home, narrows the gap. But it remains higher than the international average.

“It is possible to enhance family environments to improve the quality of parenting, nurturing, and stimulation, and thereby promote healthy child development, writes Woessmann, an economics professor at the University of Munich.

Fidgety boys, sputtering economy

Fidgety boys end up as unemployed men, writes David Leonhardt in the New York Times.

The gender gap in school readiness is wider than the gap between low-income and middle-class kids, researchers say. Boys are more likely to struggle in school, college and the workforce.

By kindergarten, girls are substantially more attentive, better behaved, more sensitive, more persistent, more flexible and more independent than boys, according to a new paper from Third Way, a Washington research group. The gap grows over the course of elementary school and feeds into academic gaps between the sexes.

The gender gap in school readiness is wider than the gap between low-income and middle-class kids, researchers say. Boys are more likely to struggle in school, college and the workforce.

In the last 25 years, the portion of women earning a four-year college degree has jumped more than 75 percent and women’s median earnings are up almost 35 percent. Men’s earnings haven’t risen at all, writes Leonhardt. “Men are much more likely to be idle — neither working, looking for work nor caring for family — than they once were and much more likely to be idle than women.”

Some blame the surge in single-parent families for the “boy crisis.” Girls who grow up with one parent — usually a mother — do almost as well as girls from two-parent families. Boys do much worse.

Others say schools aren’t boy friendly. In elementary school classrooms, fidgety boys are expected to sit still and pay attention to the female teacher.

More children live in poverty

The child poverty rate soared to 20 percent because of the recession, according to the Kids Count analysis of children’s well-being by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“The recent recession has wiped out many of the economic gains for children that occurred in the late 1990s,” said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and data at the Casey Foundation, as the report was released Wednesday. “Nearly 8 million children lived with at least one parent who was actively seeking employment but was unemployed in 2010. This is double the number in 2007, just three years earlier.”

The wave of foreclosures has increased housing problems for families with children.

Some 42 percent of children live in families under economic pressure, which Kids Count defines as $43,512 a year, or twice the federal poverty line for a family of four. That’s “a minimum needed for most families to make ends meet,” Speer says.

New Hampshire (11 percent), Minnesota (14 percent), and Massachusetts (13 percent) have the least child poverty, while Alabama (25 percent), Louisiana (24 percent), and Mississippi (31 percent) have the most.

While more children are living in poverty and in single-parent families, some child well-being factors have improved since 2000, including infant and child mortality, the teen birth rate and the dropout rate.