Poverty is a large and complex topic of research, as is family instability and complexity. Both can be daunting subjects to understand. However, Kathryn Edin has spent decades researching and living among poor families, and shared some of the insights she’s gained since writing books like $2 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America at a recent presentation on campus, sponsored by the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Chair. “Family instability and complexity,” Edin said, “are both consequences and causes of poverty. It is more common among low-income families. And they are at an all time high.”
So, what, if anything, can be done to address the core problem of family instability and complexity in poverty? Edin said it comes down to SPARKS.
What are SPARKS?
SPARKS are Supported Pathways through the Arts, Recreation, Knowledge, and Schools. They are activities or programs that help children or teenagers identify themselves outside of their hard home life. They find themselves. Eventually, they make better family decisions because they can mentally get out of their difficult upbringing. “Emerging RCT evidence suggests that these positive youth development activities can have a dramatic impact on family formation and family stability among disadvantaged youth,” said Edin.
Edin shared her encounter with three teenagers living in complex and unstable families. Despite their home challenges, these teens connected with something outside of themselves.
“They found something that defined them…that consumed them,” said Edin. She described these teen’s experience as a “life-saving identity project.” For one Baltimore teen, Vicky, it was pigeons. She cares for pigeons, and has a goal to take them flying in every park in the city. Edin said this was the first level of a SPARK. Vicky identified herself with her love and care for her birds, not the horrors that occurred in her own home.
Bob found identity with Pokémon and Japanese anime. He found friends who identified with him as well as gaming, anime, and the arts. Bob dressed in goth clothes as his way of drawing the line between his street upbringing and his identity. Bob’s SPARK connected him to friends with similar interests, and was his way out of street life.
Cody’s SPARK was the most effective, as it was with an institution—the police academy. Police used to question Cody on the street, but after he joined the academy, cops saw his academy medallion and befriended him. Edin described Cody’s SPARK as the highest kind: “It’s like he jumped onto a moving train—there was already direction, good mentors, and service opportunities.”
Career/academic program SPARKS showed the most dramatic results and influenced young men in the following ways:
- 33 percent more likely to be married
- 46 percent more likely to be a custodial parent
- 30 percent more likely to live independently with child and partner (21 percent for women)
High quality after-school programs affected pregnancy by up to 50 percent.
Many schools are no longer teach the arts and music because of budget cuts. Police academies have also been cut in some cities. These programs are often SPARKS for children and teens.
“We’ve got to create real pathways to follow SPARKS so that the bridge gets them to the other side,” said Edin.
Societal Systems That Foster Family Progress
“Ill-timed and unplanned pregnancies [are] the biggest contributors to unstable, complex, and fragile families,” Edin said. By extension, birth control is a central issue, a “how” of every child being planned and well-timed. But for those children already born, child support, paid by non-custodial parents to aid in the raising of children, is perceived as the most significant institution to fragile families. Fathers feel that the child support system does not ensure that they will see their children, and it handicaps them if they fall behind on payments.
“Why can’t child support be the mechanism that says to co-parents they’re in this for life?” said Edin. She called upon graduates of this university to consider working with these co-parents to get along. Then, parents will better be able to build “strong durable childhood bonds that last all the ways past the first five years, to high school graduation, college, and beyond,” said Edin. She lamented community college degrees that are losing their value in this ever-progressing world. Young adults from poor communities and unstable families are going to college more, but they often cannot finish college and end up in debt. “We are robbing these hopeful, aspiring kids of their dreams,” Edin said.
“But this is not hopeless,” she said. “We need to try things. She said classrooms need to be filled with students like those at BYU, who are invigorated to change and impact society for good. Universities are one place to begin feeding students into important avenues.
The whole lecture can be seen here.