Contributed by Alicia E. La Hoz, Psy.D.
When I grow up, I will meet a girl I want, get married and have three children.” Our four-year old child has a clear picture of what marriage is and already envisions that he too will be married. Unfortunately this is not the case for many other Hispanic children born today. According to Child Trends, among women under 30, 53% of births occur outside of marriage, of which 65% are born to Hispanic mothers. Thus, many of the children born today will not have a schema or internal framework of what marriage is. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, much attention has been drawn to marriage as one of the social indicators that holds promise for addressing poverty. Social science studies have clearly demonstrated that two-parent family homes lead to more economic stability and mobility while single parent family homes are more at risk for poverty.
Since the 1970s, the Hispanic community has grown 300%, now comprising 21% of the U.S. population under the age of 25. The impact of this expansion is reflected in the marketplace as Hispanics controlled $978 billion in spending power during 2009 and are expected to account for 74 percent of the increase in the nation’s labor force from 2010 to 2020. Nevertheless, this exponential growth is not without challenges to the family, education, poverty, mental health and immigration. For example, of the 6.1 million U.S. children living in poverty in 2010, 37.3 percent were Hispanic, as compared to 30.5 percent white, and 26.6 black.  While the percentage of births outside of marriage increased for all ethnic groups, there is variability by race and ethnicity. Latinos and Whites account for the highest proportion of births outside of marriage, 65% Latinos and 61% Whites in comparison to 30% Blacks. In 1990, according to Child Trends, 37% of births to Latino women were non-marital in comparison to 53% in 2009. Thus, the out-of-wedlock birth rate among Hispanics remains among the highest of all population groups.
The trend is troubling since Hispanics have historically held a positive outlook on marriage and family life, emphasizing values within the traditional family. Economic strains, social isolation, immigration stress, barriers to marriage, and shifts to cultural norms have challenged the traditional family structure held closely by Hispanics. Hispanics have overcome the challenges faced through a strong work ethic, dependence on faith, and reliance on strong family values. The strong family values leading to the formation and sustenance of intact families that would otherwise protect children and their families from the ills of poverty are eroding.
It is essential for the economic wellbeing of the country that anti-poverty policies be promoted not only by government-led initiatives but they encompass a community based approach that leverages the private sector, collaborates with the faith-based leaders, and is embraced by the community. The problem is multi-faceted and the answers also need to be comprehensive in nature. Promoting healthy marriage and fatherhood education programs, along with other social service programs such as job readiness and asset development, holds some promise as an effective intervention in reversing the current trends. The Supporting Healthy Marriage Program Evaluation study of the Healthy Marriage Programs criticized by opponents of marriage and fatherhood programs had stronger effects for Hispanic and for more distressed couples. These findings align with the local outcome studies of comprehensive programs implemented across the nation. For example, Family Bridges, one of the largest federally-sponsored programs in the Midwest serving approximately 10,000 low-income (<100% of the federal poverty level) individuals, couples and families annually, of which 68% are Hispanics, has found in follow-up studies of low-income couples who engaged in the marriage education workshops large gains in parenting skills and a dramatic reduction in stress. In addition, follow-up outcomes conducted of those participants indicated that one-third of those relying on public aid when they took the workshops no longer needed that help two years after they completed the program.
Why have these programs worked for the Hispanic participants served by Family Bridges? Qualitative studies of interviews conducted with graduates of healthy marriage programs suggest at least three dynamics that influence change: (1) self-awareness brought about in the context of a trusting relationship; (2) a decision to change; (3) available resources that provide the needed guidance for the change process to occur. Participants served by Family Bridges either are dealing with generational or situational poverty. Generational poverty defined as having been in poverty for two generations or more is perpetuated by a cycle of hopelessness due to educational, parental and spiritual poverty. Without the hope and belief that life can be better, the motivation and energy to break the cycle is very low. Couples and participants attending our programs gain a sense of hope as they witness others in similar distressful circumstances pull out and move forward. A renewed sense of hope, coupled with social and community supports and the needed resources, propels couples and individuals towards entering the change process.
Unless the marriage trend changes, our four-year-old will most likely enter into the school system with other Hispanic children who will not be raised with the benefits of a two-parent household. Other Hispanic children he befriends will most likely be at risk to be high school dropouts, to be teen parents, or to enter the juvenile system. These are the trajectories leading to poverty. Indeed, the marriage agenda is one of many interventions that, when implemented within a comprehensive community model, provides needed wrap-around and supportive services such as job skill development and is a promising practice for minorities as it draws on inherent cultural values that are appreciated and endorsed by many Hispanics.