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The tipping point for families

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In the U.S., most of us get it. We can’t spend a trillion dollars of borrowed money every year. The more we borrow without growth, the faster we hit that tipping point.

There is a different “debt bomb” accelerating the tipping point in our nation. It is the ever-growing cost of the U.S. safety net due to the demise of the nuclear family. The New York Times reported recently that non-marital births account for more than half of all American births to mothers under age 30. Teen pregnancy rates have dropped substantially over the last 30 years. But the casualness of family formation and the normalization of “fragile families” is packing the safety net, and generally, it’s not good for children.

The ramifications for the nation are at least as disturbing as borrowing a trillion dollars per year to finance the government. Neither trend is sustainable. Today, more than 40 percent of children reared in single-parent households live in poverty, compared to about 10 percent of children reared in two-parent families.

The explosion in non-marital births to moms under 30 means we can now expect worse child poverty rates and a bigger safety net — more children receiving Medicaid, food stamps and staff hired to collect child support.

Oklahoma is already seeing those consequences, and the demands on the safety net are not sustainable. Last year, 74 percent of Oklahoma children under age 5 were enrolled in Medicaid. More than 65 percent of all births were funded with Medicaid.

Hunger is a problem. More than 30 percent of all children receive food assistance monthly and more than 40 percent of all children were on food assistance for at least one month last year. The number of food-assistance recipients has grown by 40 percent in the last 36 months. The average benefit is $4.23 per person per day. It would cost three weeks of benefits to sit in the end zone at a college football game. This year, food assistance is expected to exceed $1 billion in Oklahoma for the first time.

We know that children who get the benefit of both of their biological parents have enormously better high school graduation rates, college completion rates, etc. Poverty rates for children with both parents (even low income, two-parent households) are substantially lower than poverty rates for children being reared in a single-parent household.

This is not to say that single parents can’t and don’t make it. Thousands do, and do it well. However, the enormous sacrifice of custodial parents cannot be understated.

We have a lot to learn about how we can help fragile families make it. If we don’t figure out how to restore healthy family formation, the unsustainable safety net due to our collapsing families may become the last straw — the tipping point for the well-being of our nation.

Hendrick was director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services for 13 years until his resignation last week.

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