photo credit: Steve Buissinne via pixabay

The opioid epidemic may be about to get worse. Under the new Republican administration, the Affordable Care Act and other policies to support families are under fire. To understand the impact Republican policy changes could have on the opioid epidemic we sought to learn more from someone who has studied it. Eliza Schultz is a Research Assistant for the Poverty to Prosperity program at the Center for American Progress. One of Eliza’s most recent reports (with Katherine Gallagher Robbins) is How Republican Budget Cuts Would Make the Opioid Epidemic Even Worse. The report takes a more inclusive perspective on the impact of the opioid epidemic by addressing how it affects families and communities. When I spoke with Eliza she expanded on the opioid epidemics connection to family and community, what policymakers should be doing, and the threats to well-being that these Republican policies create.

Q: I know that you do policy research. So how did opioid addiction come up as a topi­­c––and how did you recognize it as a family and community issue (as opposed to a personal one)?

ES: Opioid use has escalated into a full-blown crisis in the United States—more than 30,000 people died from overdoses in 2015, and, in some pockets of the country, particularly rural ones, it’s ushered in mass trauma—so it’s hard to ignore. It’s been covered so widely in the media and on the campaign trail, but what makes this coverage noteworthy is that, for the first time, the consensus is that the epidemic has been spurred by factors outside the control of people struggling with addiction, like economic insecurity.

Historically, drug use has been framed as a personal failure. Take, for example, the crack-cocaine epidemic of the 1980s. The reaction was to incarcerate people, which, of course, decimated families and communities, compounding whatever havoc the drugs themselves wreaked. It’s fair to say racism played a huge role in these different responses because now that the face of a drug epidemic is white, the country is more sympathetic. This moment presents an opportunity to understand drug addiction in general—not just the opioid epidemic, and no matter who is most affected—not as a personal failure but as a symptom of larger issues, like the lack of good jobs, and address those root causes.

To me, it’s hard not to recognize substance abuse as an issue that impacts families and communities. A phenomenon like opioid use does not happen in isolation to individuals—it inevitably affects the people around them. Adequate solutions to drug epidemics need to acknowledge and support those families and communities. Mass incarceration did precisely the opposite.

Q: What should policymakers do to address issues raised in your study?

ES: Well, the first key step is to do no harm. Under the American Health Care Act, health care costs will jump to the tune of $1,400 on average, but Americans who face the biggest cost increase—about $5,000 annually—are those ages 55 to 64, the same cohort that has seen the biggest rise in fatal opioid overdoses. We also know that rural communities—which, again, are disproportionately impacted by the opioid epidemic—face severe unmet needs for medical care, with more than 30 million people in counties that have not one licensed provider of medication-assisted drug treatment. The Affordable Care Act has helped to address that gap in services, in part because it incentivizes providers to serve rural counties. Under the current replacement plan, the existence of those 1,300 community health centers—many in rural areas—is threatened. Similarly, we can’t afford to roll back Medicaid expansion, or institute per capita caps, as the replacement bill proposes. All that will do is leave low-income people without insurance, or with significantly worse coverage.

As for a proactive agenda to address opioid addiction, a robust safety net is essential. Dr. Anna Lembke, chief of addiction medicine at Stanford School of Medicine, attributed part of this epidemic to the fact that, in the absence of adequate economic supports, painkillers have become a stop-gap for people with not only physical problems, but also psychological and economic ones.

Q: There’s serious potential for repeal of ACA and elimination of supports for families faced with opioid addiction. What can be done for the foster care system that, as you report, is heavily impacted by opioid addiction?

ES: By way of background, substance abuse now accounts for why about one in three children end up in foster care, and that figure is on the rise, in large part because of the opioid epidemic. State foster care systems have not been able to keep up with the increased demand, forcing states to turn to outside organizations for assistance. While it’s great that a lot of non-profits and religious institutions have stepped up in some parts of the country, reliance on volunteer organizations to plug holes like those in state foster care systems is so far from an adequate long-term solution. These systems need more financial support, but, unfortunately, the primary revenue sources for foster care are under attack. It’s hard to wrap my mind around how an administration can vow to support a population and then threaten to make budget cuts that really just exacerbate the problem at hand.

Megan Peterson is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.

Photo by Damian Gadal, Flickr CC.

On the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform, it is worthwhile considering the economic conditions facing today’s low-income individuals and families, and the welfare programs they can utilize for assistance. By many accounts, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)—the nation’s primary welfare program for the poor resulting from Welfare Reform—was unresponsive during the 2001-2003 recession as well as the Great Recession. For families facing instability in today’s job market, cash welfare could provide an income floor during difficult economic times, but for most it does not. Instead, today’s TANF program funds areas including job search, state refundable tax credits, and even marriage promotion activities. Meanwhile, spending on cash assistance has fallen dramatically since 1996—the beginning of the TANF program. Amid these spending changes, my research suggests that socio-economically disadvantaged families differ from the “typical” American family in that their incomes are, on average, not only lower but highly unstable between weeks, months, and years. This “income volatility” tends to rise during recessions, and is attributed to short-term economic shocks such as job loss as well as permanent structural changes throughout the economy (e.g. the decline of blue-collar manufacturing jobs) and the emergence of part-time and contingent work arrangements.

TANF could do more to provide a basic income floor for families with low and fluctuating income.

For such families, there is often no adequate substitute for cash assistance to pay bills—near-cash programs providing important food and housing assistance will not buy a coat, bus fare, or emergency auto repairs. Other programs providing cash are, while effective on some grounds, ill-equipped to serve as an income buffer for America’s poor families. For example, many policymakers agree that the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) lowers poverty, providing large cash refunds subsidizing earnings for the working poor during tax season. That said, the EITC is not designed to address the needs of the jobless poor. Collectively, this is less of an indictment of the EITC, food stamps (SNAP), and housing assistance, but instead an acknowledgement that TANF could do more to provide a basic income floor for families in need—families with low and fluctuating income throughout the year.

I close with three points as we consider the 20th anniversary of Welfare Reform:

  1. First, my work confirms that the poorest families generally face the highest income volatility over the past 30 years. While TANF could perform better, the full set of transfer programs aid low-income families by reducing poverty and income volatility. Still, today’s poor families receive far less direct cash assistance than in 1996.
  2. Second, many poor families have limited credit market access and savings. In the absence of TANF, many low-wage workers and their families also lack access to savings and face limited access to loanable funds. Such families may be denied loans or credit cards that allow households to absorb a drop in earnings—perhaps the first solution many households pursue when faced with an unanticipated expense or income shortfall. Whether due to displacement from employment altogether or unpredictable hours, credit and loan denials can lead to far costlier alternatives such as payday lenders. Such financial streams provide financial assistance for low-income families facing liquidity constraints, but they do so at interest rates that can exceed 100 percent and cause longer-term damage to borrowers.
  3. TANF reform resulted in a weakened cash-based safety net. Low-income workers with children face higher income volatility on average and are less likely to have affordable access to credit markets. These families are underserved by TANF in that they generally receive little if any cash assistance today. The evidence suggests that Welfare Reform and the resulting TANF program likely reduced the effectiveness of the safety net to insure and buffer families from negative economic shocks. The reform occurred amid a strong economic expansion, and today’s program should reflect new realities—namely by providing greater cash benefits and support for those who wish to gain additional skills and training within a riskier labor market.

Originally posted 9/27/16

Resources

Hardy, B. (2016). “Income Instability and the Response of the Safety Net.” Contemporary Economic Policy doi:10.1111/coep.12187.

Hardy, B., and J.P. Ziliak. (2014). “Decomposing Trends in Income Volatility: The ‘Wild Ride’ at the Top and Bottom.” Economic Inquiry 52(1): 459-476.

Bradley Hardy is a professor of public administration and policy at American University. For more information, Dr. Hardy can be contacted at hardy@american.edu.

Years ago, the Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) gave the United States a “Gentleman’s C” in terms of family policy, and not much has changed since then. CCF scholars have used the international variation in work-family policy to look at how families are doing – inside and outside of the United States. For International Women’s Day, here is a review of CCF research using international populations and the international media that reported on the research.

Supportive work-family policies foster women’s entrepreneurship

UC-Santa Barbara sociologist Sarah Thébaud’s investigation into “What Helps Women Entrepreneurs Flourish?” found that women in countries with more generous work-family policies like subsidized childcare and paid parental leave have more successful entrepreneurial endeavors: they “employ more workers, express more ambitious growth intentions, and are more likely to report introducing a brand new product or service to the market” than in countries without such benefits. There are higher numbers of women entrepreneurs in countries without progressive work-family policies, like the United States, but they don’t really succeed like those in the more generous countries. Their lack of success led Thébaud to conclude that these were cases of entrepreneurship as a “fallback” option in situations where balancing work and family was not possible otherwise.

Supportive work-family policies help men and women split up housework and childcare:

Economist Ankita Patnaik reports in “’Daddy’s Home!’ Increasing Men’s Use of Paternity Leave,” that in Quebec, after the implementation of a new non-transferrable, paid five-week paternity leave policy that paid parents seventy percent of their income (Quebec Parental Insurance Plan), fathers were more likely to take advantage of paternity leave than were fathers in Quebec before the policy implementation in 2006 or in provinces without the new policy. Eighty percent of fathers eligible for the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan utilized it, compared to less than twenty percent of those taking advantage of the previous policy, which paid fifty-five percent of income and was transferrable from fathers to mothers. After participants’ paid paternity leave had finished, participating fathers and mothers had a more egalitarian division of household and market labor than couples in which the father did not take the paid paternity leave. This research was profiled to Canadian readers in the National Post, and to Sri Lankan readers in Viva Lanka.

Patnaik’s encouraging finding is important, because in the United States – where paid paternity leave is not guaranteed—parents tend to revert to “traditional” family roles after the birth of a child. Arielle Kuperberg’s research, outlined in the CCF brief “First comes love, then comes…housework?” was profiled in the Australian edition of the International Business Times. Kuperberg, a sociologist at UNC-Greensboro, reported that it was not the transition to marriage, but the transition to parenting that increased gender inequality in household labor among couples.

Balancing market and non-market work leads to happier couples and families:

What are the implications of policies that allow parents to share work and family obligations? Well, for one, couples who share housework have more sex, and couples who share childcare have better sex, according to Cornell’s Sharon Sassler in her CCF brief, “A reversal in Predictors of Frequency and Satisfaction in Marriage.” This report was covered by The Daily Mail in the U.K., The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, and Edizione Italiana in Italy, among others.

More broadly, variation in work-family policy accounts for the “happiness gap” between parents and non-parents. Jennifer Glass (UT-Austin), Robin Simon (Wake Forest University), and Matthew Andersson (Baylor University), in “Parenting Happiness in 22 Countries,” review that in the United States, where work-family policies are lacking, the happiness gap is wide – parents tend not to be as happy as non-parents. But in countries with “good parental policy ‘packages,’” made up of paid parental leave, guaranteed time off, affordable childcare, and “work schedule flexibility,” the differences are less stark. In Norway and Hungary, where there are generous parental policy packages, parents are even happier than non-parents. In addition to many English language articles around the world, this report was covered in a Spanish-language article entitled ““La paternidad y la infelicidad” at Proexpanción, and in “Un buon welfare può rendere felici i genitori,” in the Italian news outlet Internazionale.

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.

If you are interested in families, the most recent presidential election brings a trail of troubles. A lot of Americans fear what is in store in the near future and are anxious about the clear division in popular attitudes that now exists in what is supposed to be the United States. Family policy will be deeply impacted as a result of this division. For direction, Kate Gallagher Robbins and Shawn Fremstad offer a light in the darkness in a recent brief—using evidence to clarify uncertainty. Robbins is the Director of Family Policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at American Progress, and Fremstadis a senior research associate at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a consultant on policy issues to multiple national nonprofits. They are also CCF Senior Scholars. If you want to hear more, also read this short interview with them on “Now What?”

In their brief, 4 Progressive Policies that Make Families StrongerRobbins and Fremstad detail key progressive policies that will strengthen working class families.

  1. Increase Minimum Wage

Families fare better when making more money because they have more certainty and fewer financial worries. Marriage rates help to portray that a low minimum wage is hard on families: Explain Robbins and Fremstad: “The greatest declines in marriage rates since 1970 are for working-class men, who have experienced the greatest declines in real wages, and for working-class women, who have seen little wage growth.” They argue that if the minimum wage were raised to $12 per hour, there would be increased financial resources for young, unmarried workers and even more for working parents.

  1. Strengthen Collective Bargaining

Unions strengthen families because they bring security and stability for those in the union—and even for those in industries where the unionization rate is higher. “Researchers find that the connection between unions and marriage is ‘largely explained by the increased income, regularity and stability of employment, and fringe benefits that come with union membership,” report Robbins and Fremstad. Workers in states that have “right to work”—a policy that limits unions’ ability to organize workers–have lower wages and fewer benefits, and states without these laws have higher rates of unionization. And that leads us back to the takeaway here: States with more unionization have better wages and benefits for all.

  1. Expand Medicaid

“Unfortunately, while the nation’s uninsurance rate is at an all-time low, nearly 3 million adults still lack health insurance because 19 states have yet to expand Medicaid to eligible low-income adults,” write Robbins and Fremstad. Despite the availability of federal funds to people across the country, some states deny people Medicaid who could be personally eligible. Expansion of Medicaid—health insurance for people with low or no income–would lessen stress levels, financial burdens, poor health outcomes, and family instability, all of which are heightened when Medicaid is lacking.

  1. Support Reproductive Rights

They write: “Policies that support reproductive rights increase people’s ability to decide when and if to have children and are linked to higher levels of educational attainment and lifetime earnings for women.” When people are not given the control over when they have children, they note, it is harmful to their economic security. Robbins and Fremstad suggest that an expansion in Medicaid to cover birth control and other reproductive health options would help economic security and in the end help to strengthen families.

Together, these four policies are a compelling baseline for a progressive, pro-family agenda. As Robbins and Fremstad note, states that are promoting these four policies have “higher levels of educational attainment and lower levels of incarceration.” Their brief offers strong, clear recommendations. We will work… and see what 2017 brings.

Originally posted 1/2/17

Molly McNulty is a CCF Public Affairs Intern at Framingham State University. She is a senior Sociology and Education major.

photo credit: Taco Hoekwater via Wikimedia Commons

This month in the media, Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) scholars made some good points about how social context contributes to the diversity of families and relationships in the United States and abroad.

TIME: Marriage rate decline over time yet strong relationships increase

The University of Texas Daily Beacon covered a popular issue – Millennial sex and dating. Media often latches on to (decontextualized) statistics about lower marriage rates of millennials, tsk-tsk-ing all the way. But the UT Daily Beacon pointed out some less-talked-about generational differences. More millennials are “sexually inactive” at age twenty, for instance, than those born in the 1980s. And, even though millennials might have lower marriage rates, there is reason to believe that they have closer relationships than those of previous generations with higher marriage rates. Stephanie Coontz suggests (as she has elsewhere) that this is in part due to rising gender equality that has empowered many women to resist coercive relationships.

PLACE: Around the world and around the U.S. great varieties and change in divorce

The BBC recently discussed the current state of “Divorce in the Islamic World,” where divorce activists are pushing for reform because of the inherent gender inequality in many divorce laws. To unfamiliar listeners, thinking about divorce in the Islamic world may be exotic. But Stephanie Coontz shows that there has been variation in divorce practices – and their impact on family life – by place within the United States, too. States adopted no-fault divorce individually starting during the 1970s, and up until 2010 in New York. This makes it possible to determine that despite initially high divorce rates following the adoption of no-fault divorce, divorce rates tend to decrease in the long-term. Fewer instances of domestic violence and suicides by wives are also related to the adoption of no-fault divorce. Coontz suggests that many of the problems people associate with divorce are not necessarily caused by divorce as much as caused by the stigmatization of divorce.

RACE & CLASS: Not family structure

NPR further illustrates the way that immutable contextual factors can impact family outcomes: “Black and Latino Two-Parent Families Have Half the Wealth of White Single Parents.” The report discussed on NPR references a CCF brief report by Philip Cohen, Heidi Hartmann, Chandra Childers, and Jeffrey Hayes. In “Moynihan’s Half Century: Have We Gone to Hell in a Handbasket?” Cohen, Hartmann, Childers, and Hayes discussed how, since 1965, anti-poverty efforts have mistakenly focused on changing individual behaviors, like getting black single mothers to get married. The much larger source of much economic inequality, find these studies, is racial inequality. Poor families often have lower rates or marriage because of economic inequality. Coontz, in her BBC interview, cautions against using blanket statements that almost half of married couples divorce. Those who are highly educated and who put off marriage – who tend to be wealthier – have significantly lower divorce rates.

The take-away? The theme is family diversity and family change. The evidence supports it. Ignore at our peril. Policy that draws on the “mythical” traditional family is not going to work if the goal is to reduce inequality in all these elements of family: generation, place, race, and class (and many others, too!)

Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as a CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.

Photo by krzys16 via pixabay

This week I interviewed Debra Umberson, author of Death of family members as an overlooked source of racial disadvantage in the United States. She is a professor of Sociology and Director of the Population Research Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and last week we featured her study on this page. The study examined the grief and loss in Black families and linked them to racial differences in US life expectancy. We hear frequent news accounts of Black people dying due to police shootings along with other sources of untimely deaths. The reality of these multiplied deaths affect the Black community as a whole. Looking at movements such as Black Lives Matter and how conflicts surrounding race recently can no longer be swept under the rug, I wanted to learn more about research suggesting that Black Americans die at much higher rates than White Americans due to historical racial inequalities.

Q: Your study discusses the extreme racial disparities in exposure to the death of family members in non-Hispanic Blacks compared to whites. What brought you to investigate this topic?

DU: Several things came together to lead me to this topic. First, several years ago, I conducted in-depth interviews with Black and White respondents to learn more about how early family relationships influence health habits throughout the life course. Although it wasn’t a focus of the project, the interviews with Black respondents were filled with stories of grief and loss, starting when they were children. This was especially striking in that the Black and White respondents were very similar in education and income and the stories of White respondents rarely included stories of family member loss. Around the same time, more and more stories were surfacing in the media about premature and violent deaths of young Black men in the U.S. and their devastated parents were often featured in those reports. I started thinking about the significant Black-White race gap in U.S. life expectancy and realizing how much more pervasive loss must be in Black families.

Q: Although you hypothesized that the death of family members would be more common among Black Americans than among White Americans, did you find anything that surprised you?

DU: The extent of the race gap in loss was striking. I was somewhat surprised by how big the gap was in the risk of losing a child.  Blacks are about two and half times more likely than Whites to lose a child by age 30. Between the ages of 50 and 70, Blacks are 3 times more likely than Whites to lose a child. For most family member deaths, the race gap begins to close in later life as Whites begin to more family members but that’s not the case for death of a child. Whites are much more likely than Blacks to never lose a child in their lifetime.

Q: In the context of current events such as deaths by the police, a rise in the Black Lives Matter movement, and police brutality, what is next on your research agenda?

DU: Our next step is to consider how exposure to family member deaths may contribute to racial disparities in wide-ranging life outcomes including mental health, physical health, and mortality risk. We will also consider how these effects differ for men and women across the life course. Since we know that even one family member death – whether a spouse, a child, or a parent — has significant adverse effects on health and well-being, we expect that more frequent and earlier family member losses contribute to racial disparities in health.

Bereavement rates, health & racial inequality, and criminal victimization mentioned in this research all illustrate a tragic point of view for Black Americans in the United States. With Black Americans in the news constantly this creates a sense of strain, “collective loss, and personal vulnerability” within the Black community.  If Black Americans have family members—whether that be a spouse, a child, or a sibling—dying earlier in their lives, these losses only create a lifelong ripple effect for generations and reoccurring disadvantages. Whatever can help: policies, interventions, or a simple acknowledgment of bereavement and loss in these populations must be taken into effect—and fast.

Tasia Clemons is a Junior sociology major at Framingham State University, a Resident Assistant, and a CCF Public Affairs Intern.

 

photo credit: Polski via pixabay

One consequence of racial inequalities in the United States is that black Americans die at much higher rates than white Americans. New research by UT Austin’s Debra Umberson and colleagues explores some understudied consequences of this. Umberson’s team finds that black Americans are more likely to lose their parents during childhood than white children. Furthermore, black Americans are more likely to experience the death of multiple close family members by mid-life. Along with the sheer tragedy, in the long run these losses have the potential to damage the health of black Americans. Bereavement following the death of just one family member has shown to have lasting adverse consequences for the health of the individual, with premature deaths having an even larger impact.

Using the National Longitudinal Study of Youth and Health and Retirement Study totaling 42,000 people, the researchers compared non-Hispanic black and non-Hispanic white Americans on their exposure to death of family members and total number of deaths experienced at different ages. The study shows that black Americans were twice as likely as white Americans to experience the death of two or more family members by the age of 30. Black Americans born in the 1980s were three times more likely to lose a mother, more than twice as likely to lose a father, and 20 percent more likely to lose a sibling by age 10. The race gap diminishes slightly at age 70. At that point, whites begin to exceed blacks in experiencing loss. However, black Americans experienced more family member deaths than white Americans overall.

This racial disparity in family member death rates paints a stark picture of black health disadvantages. Death of family members puts strain on other family relationships. This strain often persists throughout a lifetime, thus adding to even more trouble. As Umberson and colleagues emphasize bereavement is a known risk factor for mental and physical health having an even greater impact if it occurs during childhood or early adulthood. The loss-upon-loss quality of this result sets up another reinforcing cycle. Racial inequalities contribute to a high death rate for black Americans. And they add another racial inequality all together; health disadvantages due to the loss of family members.

Next week we will feature an interview with Dr. Umberson about her research.

Megan Peterson is a senior sociology major at Framingham State University and a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs and Social Media Intern.

Photo by gadgetgirl via flickr CC.
Photo by gadgetgirl via flickr CC.

Originally published July 19, 2016

Family and work scholar Sarah Damaske, author of For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, is Assistant Professor of Labor & Employment Relations and Sociology at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research responds to policy puzzles about the relationship between family, work, and inequality. That’s why I wanted to learn her response this week, when conservative (and anti-Trump) columnist George Will wrote the latest piece looking wistfully back at the 50-year old arguments of Daniel Patrick Moynihan – in this case in praise of family structure as the explanation for educational failures.

Will’s piece, linking the work on education from sociologist James Coleman to Moynihan’s contemporaneous claims about the “tangle of family pathologies” in the 1960s, looks like more “neomoynihanism.” What’s that? As a little background, in a summer 2015 review Stephanie Coontz titled this whole return to the past “The Moynihan Family Circus.” Coontz explains, “When it comes to social thinking about families, there is such a thing as ‘American exceptionalism.’ Other Western countries tend to view people’s life trajectories in light of their place in the class structure. But ever since the late-nineteenth century, Americans have typically attributed people’s successes or failures to their family structures and values. This is, of course, a convenient way to reconcile our faith in individual achievement with the reality of racial and economic inequality.”

What did Sarah have to say about the sociological record on all of this?

VR: What do you think of Will’s argument that “social science offers sobering evidence that family structure accounts for poor school performance”?

SD: One of the fundamental pieces of the picture that Will leaves out of this analysis is how we fund our public schools in the United States. This is important because funding structures—not family structures—are key to understanding ways to address and reduce inequality. But we fund schools using local tax dollars, which means that schools in areas where parents make a lot of money are usually quite wealthy, while schools in areas where parents make little are usually quite poor. Thus, how we choose to fund our schools has a profound impact on the quality of education that children have available to them.

That being said, it is incorrect to say that education has no impact on children’s lives—there is simply no evidence to suggest that this is true. Many children gain higher levels of education than their parents had and achieve social mobility. Still, those with parents without college degrees do face different challenges in high school and college and there is less economic intergenerational mobility in the United States than there is in other countries.

VR: So, what are the main challenges facing single parent families in the United States?

SD: My current research with colleagues, Jenifer Bratter of Rice University and Adrianne Frech of the University of Akron, suggests that the biggest problem single-mother households face is finding work that will lift their families out of poverty. We find that single-mother households were at greater risk of poverty in 2010 than they were in 2000, and we can link this risk directly to the fact that even full-time work is now often not enough to keep a family out of poverty. Moreover, as sociologist Philip Cohen has pointed out, married Black families are almost two and a half times more likely to live in poverty than are white families, which leads him to ask, “explain to me again how marriage is the problem here?”

The idea that single parent families are themselves “the problem” seems to me to be a smokescreen that masks the real challenges families face and stigmatizes a particular family form. In my opinion, based on considerable sociological evidence, the main problem facing families is low wages and, as my own research suggests, a lack of affordable childcare to make continued workforce participation possible for women to help them raise their wages and support their families.

Moreover, qualitative interviews done both with white and black women living in poverty (by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas) and with working-class men and women (by Jennifer Silva) find that marriage remains a strong social value. But young people today believe that they can’t marry because they can’t find stable jobs to support themselves, never mind a family. Again, this makes the case that wages (as well as growing job instability) are at the heart of these challenges, and increasing wages and decreasing job uncertainty are likely the best ways to make marriage possible for those who want it and make those who don’t want it more economically secure.

VR: Will argues that liberals only care about social science “when it validates policies congenial to the interests of favored factions.” Want to respond?

SD: In his conclusion, Will scolds liberals for ignoring social science, but he, himself, ignores decades of sociological work that challenges the Moynihan report, just a fraction of which I have sketched above! The Moynihan report is, in fact, one of the most controversial sociological findings of the 20th century, but there is no acknowledgement of that controversy in the column. There is, indeed, research to suggest that there are benefits to being married—this makes some common sense, as people can combine incomes, save on household costs, and pool their time use. But there is also significant cause for concern here, as we also know that trying to stay together can increase domestic violence rates, can be worse for children’s emotional well-being when parents fight a lot, and can be bad for the mental health of the unhappily married. Will appears to want to turn back time, but that is one of the few things that we can all agree upon—there are no time machines, we must move forward. Moreover, we may not truly want to go back, because when we look closely at that time capsule to the 1950s, we see, as Stephanie Coontz explains, many women felt oppressed in their homes, most families of color were left out of the economic largess of that time period, and LGBTQ families had no rights at all.

Policies that would truly benefit single mothers and have been validated by some of the best social science include three that are currently on the hill. The Healthy Families Act would allow workers in companies with at least 15 employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year. Close to 40 percent of Americans do not have ONE sick day—to care for themselves, for their children, for their family members. Localities that have adopted similar plans have found real benefits for families and employers. The FAMILY Act would provide workers with up to twelve weeks of partial income replacement when they need to take leave to take care of their own serious health problem, a pregnancy and post-partum recovery, a serious health problem of a family member, the birth or adoption of a child, or a serious military medical leave condition. Many single mothers cannot use our current Family and Medical Leave Act, because they cannot afford to take unpaid time off from work. This act would address this. Finally, the Schedules that Work Act would address the problem of unpredictable schedules that face so many Americans today. Slightly over 40 percent of young adult workers do not know their schedule more than one week ahead of time. This causes many challenges for single mother households in particular, as their incomes and their need for childcare vary on a weekly basis, as experts Susan Lambert and Julia Henley have repeatedly demonstrated in their work. In conclusion, there is clear sociological evidence and clear solutions to the problems facing families today. We just need the will to act.

For more information on these topics or to find out how you can support the three policies described above, you can visit:

The National Partnership for Women and Children

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research

sunriseIf you are interested in families, the most recent presidential election brings a trail of troubles. A lot of Americans fear what is in store in the near future and are anxious about the clear division in popular attitudes that now exists in what is supposed to be the United States. Family policy will be deeply impacted as a result of this division. For direction, Kate Gallagher Robbins and Shawn Fremstad offer a light in the darkness in a recent brief—using evidence to clarify uncertainty. Robbins is the Director of Family Policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at American Progress, and Fremstad is a senior research associate at the Center for Economic Policy Research, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, and a consultant on policy issues to multiple national nonprofits. They are also CCF Senior Scholars. If you want to hear more, also read this short interview with them on “Now What?”

In their brief, 4 Progressive Policies that Make Families Stronger, Robbins and Fremstad detail key progressive policies that will strengthen working class families.

  1. Increase Minimum Wage

Families fare better when making more money because they have more certainty and fewer financial worries. Marriage rates help to portray that a low minimum wage is hard on families: Explain Robbins and Fremstad: “The greatest declines in marriage rates since 1970 are for working-class men, who have experienced the greatest declines in real wages, and for working-class women, who have seen little wage growth.” They argue that if the minimum wage were raised to $12 per hour, there would be increased financial resources for young, unmarried workers and even more for working parents.

  1. Strengthen Collective Bargaining

Unions strengthen families because they bring security and stability for those in the union—and even for those in industries where the unionization rate is higher. “Researchers find that the connection between unions and marriage is ‘largely explained by the increased income, regularity and stability of employment, and fringe benefits that come with union membership,” report Robbins and Fremstad. Workers in states that have “right to work”—a policy that limits unions’ ability to organize workers–have lower wages and fewer benefits, and states without these laws have higher rates of unionization. And that leads us back to the takeaway here: States with more unionization have better wages and benefits for all.

  1. Expand Medicaid

“Unfortunately, while the nation’s uninsurance rate is at an all-time low, nearly 3 million adults still lack health insurance because 19 states have yet to expand Medicaid to eligible low-income adults,” write Robbins and Fremstad. Despite the availability of federal funds to people across the country, some states deny people Medicaid who could be personally eligible. Expansion of Medicaid—health insurance for people with low or no income–would lessen stress levels, financial burdens, poor health outcomes, and family instability, all of which are heightened when Medicaid is lacking.

  1. Support Reproductive Rights

They write: “Policies that support reproductive rights increase people’s ability to decide when and if to have children and are linked to higher levels of educational attainment and lifetime earnings for women.” When people are not given the control over when they have children, they note, it is harmful to their economic security. Robbins and Fremstad suggest that an expansion in Medicaid to cover birth control and other reproductive health options would help economic security and in the end help to strengthen families.

Together, these four policies are a compelling baseline for a progressive, pro-family agenda. As Robbins and Fremstad note, states that are promoting these four policies have “higher levels of educational attainment and lower levels of incarceration.” Their brief offers strong, clear recommendations. We will work… and see what 2017 brings.

Molly McNulty is a CCF Public Affairs Intern at Framingham State University. She is a senior Sociology and Education major.

Pallavi BanerjeePallavi Banerjee is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, and a Council on Contemporary Families expert. Her research focus includes international immigration, immigration policies, transnationalism, minority families, and gender. Banerjee’s most current project is Constructing Dependence:Visa Regimes and Gendered Migration in Families of Indian Professional Workers. With the different perspectives on immigration, Pallavi Banerjee’s work is very important: The recent election made us even more eager to hear about her research.

Q: What influenced you to study migration and gender in Indian professional families? For that matter, what puts a family under the category of a “professional family”?

PB: I learned about the dependent visas back in 1997 when I was still living in India as a freshman in college and was quite horrified by the implications of the visa policy for the kind of constraint it put on families. The dependent visa disallows spouses of “high-skilled temporary workers to work for pay until the lead immigrant worker has gained permanent residency in the U.S., a process that can take anywhere from six to 15 years.

When I came to the U.S to do my Ph.D. in 2005, I was taken aback to realize that these policies were still well and alive. I kept meeting Indian families and highly-qualified women who were forced to stay home and assume the role of the homemaker and caregiver due to the visas. But no one knew these families existed and the challenges they are facing. So, as an Indian immigrant woman who lived in the United States on many different kinds visas and had close personal associations with people whose lives were constrained by what I call the visa regime, my project is inspired by the merging of my personal and academic investment in understanding how immigration and visa laws affect immigrant “professional families” and how gendered patterns of migration further complicates their experiences.

I use the term “professional families” for the families in my study primarily for two reasons. One, under legal language people who migrate on H1-B (high-skilled) visas are labeled “high-skilled” visa holders because these workers mainly populate the high-tech and other “specialty occupations” like health care, finance, medicine, engineering, which are considered professional occupations. I deliberately rejected the “high-skilled” label because, as a sociologist, I do not see some occupations to be more skilled or more valuable than others. I would argue that a person migrating as a caregiver for children or elderly is as skilled in the job as a high-tech worker, and so it is misleading to categorize this occupation under low-skilled work. My second reason for calling these families “professional families” is that in most families in my study the spouse on the dependent visa was also highly-qualified and held a professional degree and even though they were not allowed to work in the U.S., they worked in professional occupations prior to migration.

Q: What have you discovered about international immigration policies affecting families that could be improved?

PB: My research shows that visa regimes that are predicated on state imposed dependence creates multiple dependence structures. Dependent spousal visas create within immigrant families a lifestyle that looks like a 1950 nuclear family where dad goes off to work and mom stays home to take care of the family. The skilled migration of workers and their families, as it stands now, creates a structure where the paid labor of the main migrant hinges on the unpaid labor of the dependent spouse – work that is devalued and has consequences for family stability and personhood of the visa holders. The migration trajectory is set up in a way that ensures that this system of dependence reproduces itself by charting the course of skilled migration to the U.S. and how we formulate our immigration policies based on this visa regime. Beyond my research, I think what needs to stop immediately is senseless and arbitrary deportation of undocumented families and family members that are ripping families apart. I argue that we dismantle the archaic and illogical laws like the dependent visa policy or mass deportation of families that creates enduring inequalities both within immigrant families and in the American society at large.

Q: There are often claims in American media that link immigration into the United States to threats such as ISIS. What are some ways to change the conversation about terrorism and immigration?

PB: Linking immigration in the United States to threats such as ISIS is extremely problematic and prejudicial. This rhetoric is not only used by the media but was used recently by President-elect Trump to fuel racism through the lowest form of fear-mongering. It is therefore very important to challenge this egregious discourse. Linking ISIS with immigration is anti-immigration and anti-Muslim. It supports public display of racist, Islamophobic, and xenophobic sentiments.

There are several ways to counter this rhetoric. You can explain the fact that immigrants boost the American economy is a well-researched finding. You can highlight the fact that getting into the U.S as an immigrant has become increasingly hard since 9/11 because the visa granting process in the United States involves detailed counter-terrorism screening by multiple law-enforcement and government security agencies for all kinds of visas granted. This shows that to assume that the U.S. is letting in ISIS when letting in immigrants is ignorant and foolhardy.

The fact is that, of all the terrorist attacks in America since 9/11, most were carried out by American-born lone wolves, most of whom had no links with ISIS at all. You can get across that the rhetoric that links immigrants to ISIS creates more divisions in our society in the ways that ISIS wants: They have made it quite clear that it’s their strategy to eliminate the “grayzone” where Muslims and non–Muslims live in peace so that all Muslims are forced to turn to them as they continue to feel unsafe.

Most importantly, I would say that the only way to change the conversation is every time such discourse is used we need to stand up and call it out for what it is – racist.

Eunice Owusu is a Council on Contemporary Families Public Affairs Intern and a sociology major at Framingham State University.