There is little doubt the structure of the American family has changed over the past 50 years.
Divorce rates are up and more children are born out of wedlock, resulting in increased poverty among children and a higher number of single-parent households. A majority of married couples with children are two-income families.
But disagreements persist over whether some of these changes are good or bad and what, if anything, the government should do about it, according to Isabel Sawhill, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and the moderator of Thursday's panel discussion at Centennial Hall titled "Changes in the structure of the American family."
Sawhill was joined in the discussion by Sue Birch, executive director of Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association; Sara Mc-Lanahan, director of the Center for Research on Child Wellbeing at Princeton University; and Irwin Garfinkel, an economist and professor of contemporary urban problems at Columbia University.
The discussion was the second and final in the inaugural summer seminar series sponsored in part by The Steamboat Springs Institute at Colorado Mountain College-Alpine Campus and a number of private contributors.
McLanahan, who was at times a single parent, has conducted extensive research on single-parent households, in part because she disagreed with early research that portrayed such households as having negative effects on children.
"I finally had to face the fact that kids in single-parent families were disadvantaged relative to other children," McLanahan said of the results of her research.
Children raised in single-parent families are more likely to drop out of school, divorce, suffer from depression and live in poverty in adulthood, she said.
Though such traits are not true of all children raised in single-parent environments, they raise an important question: Why is there a difference? McLanahan said. A large reason for the difference stems from a lack of income in single-parent homes. Surprisingly, she said, remarriage, though it often results in increased household income, doesn't help children.
And mothers who work when they have young children aren't necessarily benefiting the child.
"What I've noticed more and more is that employment during the first year (of a child's life) probably isn't good," McLanahan said.
Incentive programs such as paid parental leave can have positive effects on both single-parent and dual-parent families, said Garfinkel, who emphasized government policy, particularly as it pertains to the Bush administration's promotion of marriage and the need for financial benefits for married couples.
Many benefit programs, such as Medicaid and welfare, favor single-parent families and push away low-income two-parent families, Garfinkel said.
"Paid parental leave is a wonderful thing," Garfinkel said, because it encourages mothers to have jobs before they bear children and because it negates the negative effect maternal employment has on the lives of young children.
Child-care programs, which have been proven to have a positive effect on developing children, are a tremendous expense and need to be made more available to all families, he said.
Routt County families are fortunate in the large selection of child-care providers available to them, Birch said. But the county severely lacks infant care facilities.
Birch pointed to the success of Planned Parenthood and other programs that are combating serious issues such as teen pregnancy.
About 100 people attended the discussion.