Recession Takes Toll On Young, Low-Income Families

Financial and emotional stability can be an elusive fantasy for young, low-income families. Writer Laura Sessions Stepp, who wrote about "fragile families" in this week's Washington Post Magazine , discusses how unemployment and financial troubles can shatter even the most loving young families. And sociology professor Maria Kefalas explains how family stability has become a class privilege in America.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, celebrated playwright and actress Anna Deveare Smith talks about her upcoming play, her work as the artist in "Residence" for a political think tank and her role in the new medical drama "Nurse Jackie." That's in just a few minutes. But first, we take a peek into the pages of the latest issue of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week to find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, the Post looks at fragile families, those headed by very young, low income parents.

As the teen pregnancy rate inches up again after years of decline, there is more public discussion about teen mothers. But what about the fathers? Laura Sessions Stepp is a senior media fellow at The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. She wrote a profile of one of these young families with a focus on a very young father, who seemed to be trying very hard to live up to the role. She joins us now.

Also joining us is Maria Kefalas. She is an associate professor of Sociology at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. She is co-author of the book "Hollowing Out the Middle" about the struggles facing young people in small towns. Welcome to you both, thank you for joining us.

Ms. LAURA SESSIONS STEPP (Journalist, Writer, the Washington Post): Thanks, Michel.

Professor MARIA KEFALAS (Sociology, Saint Joseph's University, Philadelphia): Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Maria, what's a fragile family? With a divorce rate at something like 50 percent in this country, many people think most American families are fragile. So when you use that term, what do you mean by it?

Prof. KEFALAS: Well, what we sociologists mean and those who are looking at marriage in America right now mean is that stable family life has become a class privilege. And it's great that you quoted that divorce rate. The divorce rate - if you break it down by class and education, the divorce rate among college educated couples is about actually 30 percent. The divorce rate for couples like Bobby and Laura - and Lori in this piece this Sunday is actually about 70 percent.

MARTIN: Hmm.

Prof. KEFALAS: And so - and we know that when families break up, it is devastating for kids. And so you have a problem right now in America, not simply that families are fragile. I guess all families are fragile. But they are particularly fragile for that bottom 20th percentile of the income distribution.

MARTIN: And Laura, what your - the focus of your piece is a family that isn't even - that isn't married yet.

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: They haven't achieved that particular milestone…

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: …but they do consider themselves a family. But first - a couple of things I wanted to ask you. First, I noted that after years of decline, the teen birthrate is inching back up again…

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: That's right.

MARTIN: …any ideas about why?

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Well, no one is really sure. And it's a puzzle because for over a decade, we saw the rate decline. It could - we really just don't know. I mean, it's really too early actually I think to sort of even speculate about it. But it does - it has appeared now two years in a row. So, we know it's not just a one year blip.

MARTIN: And do these families generally get married?

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Generally, no.

MARTIN: Generally, no.

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you, you've - been writing a lot in recent years. I mentioned that your work as a Post reporter, but you're also the author of a very highly regarded book called "Unhooked," where you talk about young women and the choices they're making about sex and intimacy. But with this piece, you decided to focus on a father, a young man named Bobby Krotendorfer. And I do want to mention that we did try to reach him, so that he could join our conversation. We were not able to do so, which may be a part of the story in effect. But why did you decide to focus on him?

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: I wanted to - there were two kind of trends that Maria referred to there. One was the young fathers sort of staying. And initially they stay with - many of them stay with women with whom they've had children. Yes, after about five years, about three-fourths have left. But that initial sort of staying and trying. And I want to know, what is it about dads, the ones who try, what happens?

MARTIN: And you note in the piece that this is contrary to stereotype.

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: A lot of people have the images and, you know, we've been talking about a lot about Michael Jackson, his famous song "Billie Jean" is all about, this has nothing to do with me. I've nothing to do with this, head for the hills. And you're saying that contrary to that stereotype, a lot of these young men do have the intention of being part of the family, of heading the family.

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Right. That's what they'd like to do that. That's their desire in the beginning. And so I wanted to find a young man who was trying to do that and discovered that - I found this wonderful young man through an organization called Healthy Families in Maryland, who not only wanted to take care of his kid but wanted to take care of her two other kids by two other men. I mean, he really saw his role as being the father of all three of those kids.

MARTIN: And it was tough sledding. And what were some of the strikes against this family? What were some of the things that were making it hard for him?

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Well, he only had a ninth grade education. So, finding a job, keeping a job was extremely hard. She had been diagnosed in 10th grade with bipolar disorder. And she was not very good about taking her medication. So, they were staying with her father, who was the provider for them. But they were struggling both with questions of not having any money when he lost his job and then this whole concept of father as provider. I mean I think in some ways, Maria might be able to speak to this.

I think young men believe they should be providers. Even those who leave have this impression that the father is supposed to provide. And so, he was wrestling with how do I do that with - in this kind of family situation, where the kids need someone to care for them? They didn't have enough money to put the kids in daycare. How do I take care of the kids? And, you know, it's kind of the - women go through this, how do we take care of kids and have a job? In this case, it was a young man trying to figure that out.

MARTIN: Maria, talk about that if you would. You know, we talk a lot in the media about sort of how this is a - gender roles are more fluid, you know, this and - but what Laura's finding is these young men really feel very strong that it is their job to provide. And when they can't do that, their self-image, self-respect really suffers a blow. Did you find that in your work?

Prof. KEFALAS: Absolutely. I think for young women, even poor women, there is a lot of potential for redemption in mothering because to be a good mother, you have to have a clean baby and a well taken care of baby. But it really isn't about money. And for young fathers, their whole identity in our society is whether they provide for their families. And when they fail, they have failed as fathers. And it's hard to stay around because society thinks they're not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

And the mothers should really challenge them and say, well I can be bad by myself, I don't need you around. And in this economy, these - I think what we have is, we've always seen a group of young men who are underemployed, who are unemployed. And I think in the public image, it was the young black man in the inner city. And what - the other great thing about Laura's piece is that she reminds us that this is not just a trend of the inner city, this is a trend of all over America.

And with this, you know, catastrophic economy we're facing, we are going to see young people who would've been working class and blue collar, five years ago, 10 years ago, suddenly descend into what we call the, you know, the underclass, a new classes of poor men. So, the economic identity of young men is absolutely bound up with their notion of being a successful father. And if they can't succeed in the workplace, it's almost like - it's like a Greek tragedy, they're doomed to fail as fathers.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with writer Laura Sessions Stepp and Sociology professor Maria Kefalas. We are talking about fragile families. Laura profiled a young family, the father in particular, in this week's Washington Post Magazine. Speaking of race, Laura…

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Yes.

MARTIN: …the family that you've profiled in this piece is white, although there seems to be a biracial child as part of the mix…

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Yes, the mix. Hmm, hmm.

MARTIN: …which is interesting because it does get into yet another trend that we find in society, where people tend not to have these rigid, you know, ideas about who they're supposed to fall in love with and so forth. Even though the gender, the expectation of the gender role seems to still be rather fixed. So, that was one (unintelligible)…

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: Right.

MARTIN: …but did race play a role in these attitudes, in these conversations, in the way that these young men see their role in the family from your reporting?

Ms. SESSIONS STEPP: You know, in this particular family, which is really all I can speak to, I didn't see that at all. I mean, the middle child, Hope, or Hopi(ph) as Bobby called her, Hope's father was African-American. And the group that they ran around with were a mixture of black, Hispanic and Anglo young people. And they - I mean, even when I - you know, they never even mentioned the fact that Hope was biracial. I obviously noticed it right away. And then I asked Pete(ph) about it. He said, oh yeah, yeah, yeah, that was her father was black.

And so it was interesting to me, sort of the change in - hopefully, a change in attitudes where, you know - what really was important to them was to get a job and to be able to provide for their kids. And, you know, that cuts across all colors and all income levels. It's a basic sort of desire on their part. And a real fear of failure that they had with them all the time.

MARTIN: And Maria, what about you? Does your - how - what about in your research? Do you find these - the attitudes that these young men have about their role, does that cut across racial lines?

Prof. KEFALAS: Yes. You know, I think there are different details in the story. So, I have done work in north Philadelphia for years and years with young families. And I've done work in rural Iowa. And the difference is that in rural Iowa, in small towns, they're more likely - the white fathers are more likely to marry. But those couples end up, maybe taking a slightly different path, but they end up on welfare and in poverty because those marriages that do happen in those kind of rural settings don't tend to last. And so you have a slightly different dynamic in this - actually a rural-urban, which plays out racially. But in reality, I think that the attitudes of the young men, if you close your eyes and you listen to what they're saying, and you ignore the fact whether they have an NBA T-shirt or a NASCAR T-shirt, they're saying the same things.

They want to be good fathers. They want to be involved in their children's lives, and there are all these obstacles that take them out of that path. And in the inner city, I think we have focused so much on these young, black men and the criminality of young, black men and welfare that we have ignored the same processes of de-industrialization and the loss of jobs and the death of blue-collar work and how it's seeping into the heartland and seeping into small towns and now affecting more and more young, white men in a way that I think in the national consciousness had only been a problem that we'd seen among young, black men.

MARTIN: Well, in looking at the numbers, in fact the number of the overall, the raw number of teen births is largest for white families.

Ms. STEPP: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And so, I mean, I think that is a point that does not tend to get noticed. So Maria, we only have about a minute left. What would help a family like the family that Laura profiled? Clearly more education, I think, would -have had benefit to Bobby(ph), but what now?

Ms. KEFALAS: The United States is comparable to Bulgaria and Romania in the rates of teen pregnancy. And our society has utterly failed in teen pregnancy as a phenomena because it shows us how we're failing our young people.

We're not giving them alternatives. We're not giving them opportunities, and there's nothing wrong with having children, but a society that is working for their young people doesn't have early child-bearing as a problem, and these families would exist five years, 10 years down the road when they're in much better shape. So this is an economic crisis. This is an education crisis. And I'm really excited that Laura's piece is bringing it to the entire country and reminding us it's not just something we see in one community.

MARTIN: Maria Kefalas is an associate professor of sociology at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. She's the co-author of "Hollowing Out the Middle." It's a book about the struggles facing young people in small towns, and she was kind enough to join us from Eastham, Massachusetts.

Laura Sessions Stepp is a former reporter for the Washington Post. She's currently a senior media fellow at the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. She's also the author of "Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both." If you want to read Laura's piece in its entirety, it's called "Family Man." We'll have a link on our Web site. That's the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. Ladies, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. KEFALAS: Thanks, Michel.

Ms. STEPP: Thanks, Michel.

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