Fragile Families

Photo by Dakota Corbin

Last spring one of my neighbors walked away from her senior year of high school with incredible grades and lots of promise.  She also walked away pregnant. Recently she had a healthy baby boy, presenting our neighborhood with an incredible opportunity to come around them in support (and share lots of used baby gear).

My neighbor and her son are now what’s known as a “fragile family.”  A recent report from Princeton and the Brookings Institute’s journal The Future of Children highlights some of the complexities of and threats to fragile families. Better understanding these complexities and threats can help us better minister among them.

At this point, almost half (40%) of all babies born in the U.S. are born into “nonmarital” families, called “fragile” because while parents may be committed to one another at the time of the child’s birth, those commitments often dissolve in ensuing years, leaving children in single-parent (and often much more complicated) situations. The report details some of those scenarios, including the reality that one-third of fathers in fragile families disappear from their children’s lives within five years after their birth.

The fragile family phenomenon is connected to racial and class disparity in our culture, pointing to the cycles of systemic poverty and systemic racial injustice often tied up with fragile family dynamics.

In light of recent conversations on this blog about emerging adulthood, this statement in the report is interesting:

“Most analysts agree that for a sizable share of the U.S. population, the conventional sequence of events in the transition to adulthood—school, employment, marriage, and finally parenthood—has been turned upside down. Today’s young adults often become parents before they have finished their education, gotten a stable job, and married. As a result, many American children are born into families headed by young, unmarried, and underemployed parents who often go on to have children with other partners.”

The report’s primary recommendation for policy and practice is to increase support for couples at the time children are born.  At that point 80% of parental couples are romantically involved and have high hopes of becoming married.  This presents a critical opportunity to support, educate, and surround new parents with the kind of help that can stabilize life for their children.

Sounds a lot like an opportunity for the Church.