Marriage and Positive Parent Relationships are Best for Young Children

We admit that we’re not impartial or dispassionate except when it comes to our data.

As for our mission, we are unapologetically focused on our city’s youngest children and how Memphis can make sure they have their best opportunities to succeed in school and life. Everything we do at The Urban Child Institute is seen through only one lens: what’s best for children and their optimal brain development.

There was a recent headline in The Commercial Appeal that said, “Fewer two-parent homes in Memphis,” and it reported on a trend that has existed here for more than a decade. The article reported recently-released 2010 U.S. Census information: two out of three children younger than 18 in Memphis are being raised in one-parent families.

It’s no coincidence that the percentage of all Memphis children living in economically vulnerable families is roughly the same percentage. That’s because one-parent families and poverty regularly go hand-in-hand, resulting in less than optimal development for children whose brains grow to 80% of their adult sizes before their third birthdays.

We know that this one fact of life – unmarried single parent households and poverty – puts so many children’s futures at risk. It’s not that we’re insensitive to the daily challenges faced by these single parents. It’s not that we are making a moral judgment or stricture. For us at The Urban Child Institute, it's all about the children and the data show that there are additional risks for children in single-parent families.

That doesn’t mean that every single parent cannot succeed. In fact, Memphis has numerous accounts of courageous single parents who fought against long odds for their children’s futures and of children themselves who overcame staggering obstacles. What we’re saying is that the data show that the convergence of issues that are regularly found with single-parent families raises the hurdles for children much, much higher.

The one-parent families and the attendant poverty that accompany so many of them produce ripple effects that influence most of Memphis’ challenges: lack of early language skills, poor nutrition, high stress environments, broken neighborhoods, the achievement gap, high drop-out rates, and too few educated workers.

In Shelby County, children raised in families headed by a single parent are more than seven times more likely to grow up in poverty than children in families headed by a married couple, and 50% of children raised by single mothers live in poverty, compared to 5% for married parents. In this way, the lives of tens of thousands of young children are characterized by instability and the lack of fundamental resources and opportunities that most of us take for granted.

Children in these families are much more likely to be uprooted and transient – Deputy Superintendent Irving Hamer said that 30% of Memphis City Schools students change residences during the year – have fewer books at home, are less likely to become early readers, are less likely to be ready to start school, and are less likely to finish high school.

For every $1 spent on living wage employment, quality child care, positive parenting classes, and finishing high school, there is a return on investment of $3 to $17. The price of inaction is much higher and is paid for in remedial education, job training, more people on public assistance, and jail cells.

It’s a case of pay now or pay later. There’s no time like the present.

We hope you will learn more about brain development and early childhood issues by reading the 2011 Data Book: The State of Children in Memphis and Shelby County.

Read the 2011 Data Book