When Bart Peterson began to plan in 1997 his run for mayor of Indianapolis, he typed out a private “thought piece” on his views about the community.
“It really centered on the breakdown of the family as the most significant factor contributing to the societal ills of the city,” said Peterson, who was mayor from 2000 until 2008. “If I could waive a magic wand and change anything, it would be that.”
Recent research by economists at Harvard and Stanford universities backs up Peterson’s hunch. The economists identified the prevalence of single-parent households as the No. 1 factor linked with slow growth in incomes for kids who grow up in low-income households. Indianapolis is also hampered by higher levels of violent crime and segregation by race and income.
But Peterson recalls no policy initiatives of his administration aimed directly at the issue of single-parent and broken homes.
“It didn’t feel then—it doesn’t feel today—like it lends itself to that kind of [government-led] work,” said Peterson, who is now an executive at Indianapolis drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co. “At best you’re just tinkering around the edges of the issue with government policy solutions.”
He’s hardly alone. Policymakers on both the left and right have long felt hamstrung when it comes to addressing the problems that decades of social science research have shown hurt the economic prospects, not only of those in the midst of them, but everyone else in the community.
The research by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and Harvard economist Nathaniel Hendren just puts dollar figures on those costs.
The average 26-year-old who grew up in a low-income household in Marion County has a household income that is 13 percent—or $3,400— less than his or her peers around the nation due to the ill effects of living in the Indianapolis area. More than 40 percent of that effect is due to a lower-than-average marriage rate among low-income natives of Marion County, according to data produced by Chetty and Hendren’s research.
For Marion County natives who grew up in affluent families, their household incomes are depressed by about $1,700. The effect would have been $2,200 if not for the higher-than-average marriage rate among those who grew up affluent.
It even appears that social problems spill over into affluent homes in suburban counties. In six of the eight counties surrounding Marion, individual incomes grew slower than the national average for kids raised in affluent households.
Household incomes rose in all suburban counties except Shelby and Hamilton, however, because marriage rates were higher than the national average.
Social science researchers such as Charles Murray, who is lauded by conservatives, and Robert Putnam, cheered by liberals, have both concluded that the most economically successful families nearly always start with marriage before kids, and that both they and their children enjoy large economic advantages from doing so.
But few are willing to tell others they should follow that example.
Drew Klacik, a senior policy analyst at the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, recognizes the impact of single-parent homes. His father died when he was 12 and his brother was just two. Klacik went to college and graduate school and now makes more than $90,000 a year doing policy research for city and state governments. His brother, who lived much longer in a single-parent home, earned a general equivalency diploma and works in a steel mill.
But Klacik thinks it’s intolerant and ineffective to encourage two-parent families.
“I really wouldn’t have wanted anyone to tell me and my brother that we were being raised wrong,” he said. “What we can affect is striving to give everyone of these kids [raised in broken families] the best chance they can have to grow up and be successful.”
Rare political consensus
Nationally, there are growing efforts on both the left and right to address the issue of single-parent homes.
President Barack Obama, who was raised by a single mom, has spoken passionately about the importance of men helping to raise their children. Just six months after taking office, he launched a fatherhood initiative, which has tried to fund job training and parenting skills programs for low-income parents.
“We can all agree that we’ve got too many mothers out there forced to do everything all by themselves,” Obama said in a 2010 speech about the initiative. “They’re doing a heroic job, often under trying circumstances. They deserve a lot of credit for that. But they shouldn’t have to do it alone. The work of raising our children is the most important job in this country, and it’s all of our responsibilities—mothers and fathers.”
Obama has also advocated for greater supports for single mothers, in the form of longer leave times from their jobs after giving birth and help paying for day care. He has also promoted preschool for all 4-year-olds.
Conservative thinkers in Washington, D.C., have advocated such things as giving larger tax credits when babies are born after low-income couples are married.
Gov. Mike Pence has routinely linked family issues with economic outcomes. He instructed all state agencies to conduct “family impact” reviews of their programs and regulations to see if they either discourage marriage or encourage bearing children out of wedlock. He has also encouraged incentives for parents who adopt foster children.
Pence has also argued for expanding state-funded preschool and career and vocational education as ways to helps kids who have not had ideal family backgrounds.
“If you finish high school, if you get a job, and if you wait until you are married to have children—the percentage of people who do those things and find themselves in persistent poverty are almost nonexistent,” Pence said in a December 2013 speech, citing research by the Brookings Institution. “I think it’s time to be honest with these numbers and share with our kids the importance of these things: the importance of getting a high school diploma, the importance of being ready for work, and the importance of waiting to have children until you’re married.”
But neither Obama’s efforts nor Pence’s efforts have scaled up to have a major impact. Ryan Streeter, a former policy director for Pence, said the issue requires non-government institutions in what policymakers call “civil society”—families, churches, not-for-profits.
“As policymakers, there’s very little we can do to change public mores. That’s something civil society is more equipped to do,” said Streeter, who is now executive director of the Center for Politics and Governance at the University of Texasat Austin.
Hope for change
The good news is those kinds of institutions have been kicking into action more in recent years to address family breakdown, segregation and crime—either directly or indirectly.
The Shepherd Community Center on East Washington Street combines Christian worship, a school, a health clinic, a food pantry and other efforts to help “break the cycle of poverty” for individuals, families and the eastside neighborhoods in which it operates. The organization now serves about 5,000 people each year.
United Way of Central Indiana shifted its strategy about a decade ago to try to coordinate its funding to address both the causes of poverty as well as its relief. That shift is one reason the United Way has been such a champion for public funding of high-quality preschool programs.
The Oaks Academy, a private school that gives out significant financial aid so it can serve a mix of students from all races and income levels, has added two campuses in the past five years. The school requires parents to attend classes twice a year to improve their parenting skills.
John Myrland, the former president of the Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce who became a Methodist minister, sees businesses, charities and churches being more active and more “holistic” in their efforts to improve neighborhoods. Myrland now helps fund some of these efforts as the community engagement executive for Evansville-based Old National Bank, which has significant operations in Indianapolis.
“I’m encouraged because there are enough corporations, there are enough not-for-profits, there are enough religious groups that are coming together now and saying, ‘Let’s address these issues together,’” Myrland said, sitting in a conference room in Old National’s offices at 96th Street and College Avenue.
Joe Hogsett, who took office as Indianapolis mayor on Jan. 1, said forming partnerships between government and community organizations is critical to reverse the rising crime wave that led to 150 criminal homicides in Marion County last year.
“If we are to move the dial in a meaningful way, public-private partnerships through United Way, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, obviously the faith-based community, have a role to play,” Hogsett said, while also mentioning the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Club and community centers.
Hogsett also wants to work through schools to help change the trajectory of the lives of kids who grow up amid poverty, broken families, segregation and violence.
“The answer to this will be found in our city’s classrooms,” Hogsett said.
Many politicians gravitate toward schools, which the researchers at Harvard and Stanford found do have an impact on income growth for entire communities. But that research also showed that schools in the Indianapolis area are, on average, better than those in other large metros, even those with higher rates of income growth.
Politicians keep focusing on schools because education is a place where government policies can have an effect, said Chris LaMothe, who spurred the Indiana Chamber of Commerce to start setting long-term economic visions for the state in the late 1990s.
“The only thing we couldn’t figure out how to do was, there was no way to legislate parental responsibility,” said LaMothe, who is now CEO of Elevate Ventures, a state-funded investment firm.
LaMothe is encouraged, however, that governments, community groups and schools are joining forces to address, not just school quality, but the broad issues of poverty and family breakdown.
“We’ve got to do the same thing when we’re talking about single-parent families and poverty or getting help to people who want to be better parents,” LaMothe said. “If we focused there, I think we could really move the ball forward.”•