Magazine article USA TODAY

Jobs, Poverty, and Family Breakup: The Impacts of Unemployment and Poverty Are Contributing Substantially to Dissolution of American Families

Magazine article USA TODAY

Jobs, Poverty, and Family Breakup: The Impacts of Unemployment and Poverty Are Contributing Substantially to Dissolution of American Families

Article excerpt

ECONOMIC STRESS can be a major factor in the breakup of two-parent families. When households dissolve, low income and fathers' joblessness often are part of the picture. Consequently, many separated and divorced mothers who are poor came from two-parent families that already were impoverished before the breakup.

Most transitions into poverty occur to continuing families--those that continue to be maintained by the same person or married couple. These families fall into poverty because they experience a drop in the number of hours they work or because the amount of money that they make per hour fails to keep pace with inflation.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's systematic analysis of the social and economic conditions under which households were created and dissolved during the last decade, poor two-parent families were nearly twice as likely to break up as those with income above the poverty line. About 13% of two-parent families that existed at the beginning of a typical two-year period in the mid 1980s no longer did two years later, mainly because the spouses separated. Usually, the result was that a new single-parent family came into being. Among non-poor two-parent families, just seven percent broke up within two years.

For whites, the figures are about the same. Poor two-parent families (12%) were more likely than non-poor ones (seven percent) to discontinue within two years. The difference was even larger for blacks, where the chances of two-parent families breaking up within two years were 21% if they were poor, compared with 11% if they were not. These results suggest that the economic stresses and insecurity associated with having very low family incomes contribute substantially to marital separation and the discontinuation of two-parent families.

Moreover, the lack of secure full-time employment contributes substantially to family breakup. Two-parent families with fathers who did not have jobs were about twice as likely to break apart as those where he was employed. Among families where neither spouse worked or only the mother did, 13-16% discontinued within two years. Among those where the father was employed, seven percent broke up, regardless of whether or not the mother had a job.

The same pattern held true for white families--13-15% broke up if the father was not working, compared to seven percent if he was (again, regardless of whether the mother had a job). The pattern for black families was quite different, with a two-year discontinuation rate as low as nine percent if both parents worked. Where only one parent worked or neither did, the chances of breaking up within two years were 16-22%.

Insofar as the stresses arising from economic insecurity or need contribute to the breakup of two-parent families, these results suggest the level of security achieved by white two-parent families where only the husband is employed may not have been reached by black two-parent families, on average, unless both the father and mother held jobs. If so, the reason may be that black men have a much lower average income than white males. For instance, among married, spouse-present men who worked year-round full time in 1990, the median income for blacks was 23% less ($24,960 vs. $32,464).

Looking only at families where both parents were employed, the chances of breaking up depended on whether they worked full time (35 or more hours per week) or part time (one-34). Among white families where both parents worked, the two-year discontinuation rate was 5.5% if the father had a full-time job and the mother a part-time one, but 8.3% if he worked only part time.

Another type of job-related stress-the need for two parents to balance large amounts of time at work with the care of their children-also appears to contribute to family breakup. White families were 50% more likely to break up if both parents worked full time (8.2%) than if the father had a full-time job and the mother had a part-time one (5. …

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