'Fragile families' harm children's development.So it's hardly surprising that President Obama used his State of the Union Address to call for extending that middle- and upper-class habit to all children, at government expense.
But before the checks go out, it would be wise to consider a broader question: Can the middle-class experience be replicated that easily? The evidence says universal preschool alone won't get the job done.
A few small, high-quality programs have shown enduring benefits for at-risk kids. But intensive study of Head Start, the nation's largest and oldest preschool program, finds that the beneficial effects, which are real, wear off by third grade.
The probable reason is not hard to deduce. Children are most likely to succeed in school when pushed by parents who provide stability, help with schooling, and instill an education and work ethic. But for decades now, the American family has been breaking down.
Two-fifths of children born in the USA are born to unmarried mothers, an eightfold increase since 1960. Many succeed thanks to the heroic efforts of strong, motivated single parents and other relatives. But research shows that children of single parents suffer disproportionately high poverty rates, impaired development and low performance in school.
Ron Haskins, an expert on children and families at the Brookings Institution, calls single parenthood a "little motor pushing up the poverty rate." In 2011, the rate for children of single mothers was more than four times greater than that for children of married couples.
Researchers at Princeton and Columbia, following 5,000 children born to married and unmarried parents, have found that the effects of single parenthood seep into every aspect of kids' lives.
A typical pattern in these "fragile families" looks like this: When a child is born, most fathers and mothers are in a committed relationship. By the time the child reaches 5, though, many fathers have disappeared. As the mothers move on to new relationships, the children face more instability, often with new siblings born to different fathers. Boys without strong male role models are more likely to turn to gangs and crime.
Single mothers read less to their children, are more likely to use harsh discipline and are less likely to maintain stable routines, such as a regular bedtime. All these behaviors are important predictors of children's health and development.
It is a tragically familiar pattern. In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Johnson administration official and later a U.S. senator, warned about an alarming rise — to nearly 24% — in unmarried births in the black community. His prescient warning created a furor among liberals and civil rights leaders, who accused him of blaming the victim. The rates are now 73% for blacks, 53% for Hispanics and 29% for whites.
Even today, solutions are undermined by ideological warfare. Liberals blame poverty. Conservatives blame the culture. Both are right. The problems are intertwined, and defy easy solutions. Fighting poverty, promoting marriage and stable relationships, intervening with home visits, and improving education all help, but there is no magic answer.
So, sure, explore Obama's plan to expand quality preschool, and make sure kids aren't then dumped into failing elementary schools. But don't miss the core problem. The primary engine of social advancement has always been the family, and it is breaking down.