Families in Focus -- Population Council News Release
Population Council News Releases

New Population Council Report Warns World Must Face Reality of Rapidly Changing FamilyStructures

Parent-Child Bond Unraveling in Rich and Poor Countries Alike; Call for Policy andResearch to Focus on Strengthening Ties that Bind

NEW YORK (May 30, 1995)--A new report released today by the Population Council revealsthat women worldwide are carrying an increasing share of economic responsibility for theirchildren, becoming the sole or most substantial economic support to a large proportion ofthe world's families. "Mothering is about earning as much as it is aboutnurturing," says Judith Bruce, a co-author of the report with Cynthia B. Lloyd andAnn Leonard. "In the future," Bruce concludes," being a mother may be themost important factor disposing women to poverty unless women's family roles are morefully valued and responsibility for children is more equitably balanced between men andwomen."

The new report, Families in Focus: New Perspectives on Mothers, Fathers, and Children,reveals a dramatic increase in households headed by women in less developed countries anda rising number of single-parent families in more developed countries. These increases arecaused by high levels of marital dissolution, rising divorce rates and migration flows,and childbearing by unmarried women. Added pressures on families from civil disruption andunstable employment are also leaving many children without adequate social and economicsupport from fathers.

By analyzing available data from many countries on families with dependent children,the authors found that diverse and shifting family relationships in contemporary life arechallenging the myth of the traditional family as a "stable and cohesive unit inwhich father serves as economic provider, mother serves as emotional caregiver, and allchildren are treated equally and well." The reality of problems parents face infulfilling their duties and the troubling conditions of childhood demand global policiesthat support families and are based on a true picture of relationships between mothers,fathers, and children. "Given children's inherent vulnerability, the parent-childbond is the family relationship most in need of policy attention."

"Fathers' roles overall have been neglected and much policy has operated as ifchildren have a single parentūthe mother," says Ann Leonard. Even though there isconsiderable evidence that children benefit from the father being more involved in raisingthe child, Leonard found "Many children around the globe spend some portion of theirchildhood without the emotional, physical, and/or financial support of a father. Economicsupport for children tends to decline, often abruptly, after marital disruption. Fathersgenerally feel even less obligation to pay child support when they were never married tothe child's mother."

Cynthia Lloyd points out that, even though fertility is declining worldwide, thedependency burden on working parents has increased and significant numbers of the world'schildren suffer due to adverse family circumstances beyond their control. Children areoften separated from one or both parents when mothers and fathers are forced to migrate insearch of income or when their parents' marriage dissolves. "Unwanted children,whether born within marriage or outside of formally recognized unions are likely to bedisadvantaged, either because the parents are not psychologically prepared for theresponsibility of childbearing or because family resources are inadequate to meet thebaby's needs."

Families suffering from the strains of these multiple pressures fail to find support inpublic policies, Bruce concludes. "Governments are not making sufficient investmentin the next generation or in adults who wish to be good parents." In many countries,"working" mothers are seen as neglecting their children and men who wish toparticipate as fathers in child-care roles are not encouraged by economic and socialmeasures. Without explicit policies to improve family functioning, many children aredeprived of adequate nutrition and care.

The Population Council report suggests some policy initiatives that can strengthenfamily ties: laws to protect parents who have custody of children against loss of land,housing, or income; strategies relating to employment and child care that accommodate thejoint demands of work and home life for both men and women; and community-level servicesthat support the poorest and most isolated parents. Young unmarried mothers, oftenabandoned by the fathers of their children as well as their families, should not feel theyare also abandoned by society. Family life education courses should teach girls that theyare likely to be economically responsible for themselves and their children at some pointin their lives and should teach boys that fatherhood includes making economiccontributions to one's children and sharing responsibility for child care. Specificstrategies should be developed to engage men as fathers through pregnancy support,postpartum, and child welfare programs and supportive employment policies.

Key Findings

  1. There is a striking increase in households headed by women in many less developed countries and in single-parent families (mostly mothers) in more developed countries. Even in households where fathers are present, mothers have increased economic responsibility for children. Households officially identified as women-headed are typically those where the male is absent; thus, the numbers tend to underreport those households where a male is present that are actually supported by women.
  2. Global levels of marital dissolution are actually much higher than commonly believed, as a result of abandonment, separation, divorce, or death of a spouse.
  3. Children in single-parent households are much more likely to be poor than those who live with two parents, largely because of the loss of economic support from absent fathers.

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