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Commentary By Steven Malanga

Change Kids Can Believe In

Cities, Culture Race

Among the many items that presidential hopeful Barack Obama lists in his agenda for lowering American poverty is legislation that would "promote responsible fatherhood" by, among other measures, stricter enforcement of laws requiring absent fathers to support their children. Perhaps Obama should take a look at the latest U. S. Census Bureau statistics on child custody and child support. The data might prompt him to revamp his legislation in support of a broader reform—responsible parenthood among both sexes.

The recently released data indicate some progress, after a decade of tougher enforcement of court-ordered child support by certain localities. While the overall share of parents with custody of kids who received at least some child support in 2005 (the latest year statistics are available) grew slightly—to 77.2%, from 75.8% in 1995—the percentage of parents receiving all the support due them increased to 47%, from only 37% a decade earlier. Those gains are significant, because the data show that single-parent households that get full child support from absent parents are far less likely to wind up in poverty.

But below the surface of the Census report is a troubling trend that has as much to do with mothers as with fathers: the rapidly rising percentage of custodial single parents who have never married. These parents, mostly mothers, are far less likely to have support agreements with the child's absent parent, because their relationships are less solid than those between formerly married couples who raised children together for some time before splitting. Only 48% of never-married parents have such agreements, compared with 62% of all other parents. Further, these never-married parents are far less likely to receive child-support payments even when arrangements are in place—only 40% received everything due them in 2005, compared with half of all other parents.

What's most troubling is that unwed parents represent the fastest-growing segment of single parents: their numbers have increased by a quarter since 1995, and they now make up 30% of all parents with court-ordered custody of children when the other biological parent is absent. The growth in out of wedlock births is a serious impediment to reducing child poverty in America. Whereas fewer than 10% of children living with two parents live below the poverty line, about 37% of those living with single mothers do. Kids born out of wedlock are particularly likely to wind up in poverty. In 2007, half of all women who had children out of wedlock were in poverty, ensuring that their children wound up there, too.

Over the years, society has tried to make absent parents, mostly fathers, contribute to the support of their children. But the image of a rich deadbeat dad enjoying the high life while his kids and ex go hungry is a fanciful one that applies to only a small percentage of families. A far larger problem is fathers who can't support their children because they're unemployable for a host of reasons, ranging from incarceration to drug addiction. Gleaning lessons from welfare reform, some social entrepreneurs are developing programs, like Philadelphia-based Public/Private Ventures's Fathers at Work, to make these fathers more employable and hence better able to support their children. If such efforts prove successful, they could play an important role in reducing child poverty.

But the problem of unwed parents is even more complex. According to 2007 Census data, only 28% of unwed mothers who gave birth last year were living with a partner. Such arrangements do not augur well for men's making lifetime commitments to their kids' support and development.

So while enforcement programs haul the deadbeat dad—or the occasional deadbeat mom—into court, something more is needed. Obama's agenda aims to encourage marriage with more tax credits for working-poor married couples and other family-friendly initiatives, but the rise in out of wedlock births is not a function of tax policy. We long ago destigmatized this form of parenthood: young men boast about the children they've fathered illegitimately, and young women seem unaware that such births are a superhighway to lifetime poverty for them and their kids. But there's nothing cool about the terrible consequences that rising out of wedlock births are having for America's children. It would be refreshing to see a natural leader and strong father figure like Obama talk frankly about this problem. Such a discussion is long overdue.

Steven Malanga is senior editor of City Journal and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He is a coauthor of The Immigration Solution