The family is one of society’s primary institutions: It plays an irreplaceable role in providing love, support, safety and guidance to children and support and security to adults.

As the city of Richmond embarks on a major systemic effort to reduce poverty and to improve quality of life for our low-income residents, we are acutely aware of both the impact of poverty on the deterioration of the family and the role that damaged family relationships play in perpetuating poverty.

To be deprived of stable, unconditional parental love is a cruel injustice to children. Equally painful is the all-too-common experience of seeing one’s parents struggle and at times fail to meet the material needs of the family. The stress associated with growing up in poverty — manifested not just in material deprivation, but in the household conflicts and instability that often go along with such deprivation — can have lifelong damaging impact on children’s social, emotional and cognitive development.

Stronger families clearly must be one of the key pathways by which we begin to combat the effects of poverty and reduce poverty outright. But policymakers must be cognizant of the plurality and diversity of the modern family.

The traditional two-parent family is less predominant than two generations ago — not just in high poverty communities, but society-wide and internationally as well. Gay and lesbian couples with children are increasingly prevalent. Many families today are single-parent, and numerous families have complex structures involving step-parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles serving as primary or secondary caregivers to children. In addition, families never exist in isolation, but are part of a larger network involving extended families, neighbors and others who contribute to raising children.

The diversity of today’s family structures is a central sociological fact that is beyond the capacity of public policy, let alone local government, to alter. Public policy’s role must be to provide as supportive an environment as possible so that family structures of all types can flourish.

Acknowledging that reality need not entail denying the clear connection between family structure and children’s likelihood of growing up in poverty. The official poverty line is defined by a household’s total income, and certainly two incomes are better than one. The most recent statistics for the city of Richmond (2007-2011) show that 55.9 percent of children in the city growing up in single-parent households live in poverty, compared to 11.2 percent of children in married-couple families. By way of comparison, in Henrico County 33.1 percent of children in single-parent households live in poverty, compared to 6.1 percent of children in married-couple families.

A tricky question here is what explains this correlation. Has the decline of two-parent families driven high child poverty rates, or has prolonged concentrated poverty in cities like Richmond damaged the viability of stable two-parent families?

Academic discussion continues on this question, but a rough summary of current thinking by leading scholars goes as follows: Concentrated poverty reduces the number of “marriageable males” who are not incarcerated and are able to get a good, steady job at a reasonably high wage. As time goes on, women in low-income communities, while committed to having families, become more reluctant to marry men who have not proven themselves economically reliable partners, leading to a change in norms. Women in low-income communities increasingly may not see traditional marriage as a viable option, even though they have not given up the traditional dream of motherhood, and hence they are willing to have children and start families outside of marriage. Indeed, policies intended to increase the incentive of low-income women to get or stay married may have detrimental consequences if the supply of men with solid, reliable economic prospects is insufficient.

This analysis suggests there is a need to both increase the supply of “marriageable males” by expanding economic opportunity, thus making stable two-parent families more viable, and also to rejuvenate cultural norms stressing the responsibility of parents for their children.

In the city of Richmond, for instance, just 52.2 percent of working age African-American men are employed. In comparison, in Henrico, 68.2 percent of working age African-American men have jobs. That contrast helps explain why 49.7 percent of African-American family households in Henrico are married-couple families, compared to just 31.8 percent of African-American family households in Richmond.

We believe that the most productive and indispensable step in both reducing long-term poverty and strengthening families is increasing employment in low-income communities in the city. A steady job at a good wage is the most reliable route out of poverty and lays the groundwork for family stability — as well as the best antidote to the “prison pipeline” in which far too many men in Richmond, especially African-American men, have been ensnared.

At the same time community organizations and public agencies have a crucial role to play in preventing teen pregnancies, promoting responsible parenthood, connecting fathers with their children, promoting positive parenting practices, and offering effective early childhood education. Raising young children is a challenging task for all parents and caregivers, regardless of income level, but the need for social support and good information is most pressing in high-poverty communities.

The challenge of supporting and sustaining stable families is as complex and multi-faceted as the challenge of reducing poverty itself. As the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission report illustrated, the community desperately needs a multi-faceted approach to expanding meaningful opportunity and bolstering human development in the city and region.

The rest of this series will consider the obstacles families face in coping with and attempting to rise out of poverty. Future pieces, from a variety of community voices, will consider how much money it really takes for families to be self-sufficient; the obstacles families face in finding, getting to and staying in good jobs; the role of positive parenting and early childhood education in breaking the cycle of poverty; the city’s recent successful efforts in reducing teenage pregnancy; community perspectives on the challenge of reconnecting fathers with children; the impact of high incarceration rates on family stability and related issues.

Our hope is that this series will build public understanding of the multiple challenges involved in strengthening families and reducing poverty here in Richmond — and help build the consensus for a sustained community effort to tackle just that challenge in the years ahead.

Thad Williamson, associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond and Faculty Fellow at UR Downtown, was a member of the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty Commission. Contact him at or (804) 287-6542.

Jennifer Erkulwater is associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond. Contact her at jerkul@ or (804) 287-6457.

Poverty in Richmond

This is the first in a series of columns discussing various aspects of the Mayor’s Anti-Poverty

Commission report.

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