Conditions worsening for children Census cites collapse of traditional family

June 05, 1991|By James Bock

The traditional family continued to splinter in Maryland during the 1980s with more divorces, more single-parent families and more elderly people living alone, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported.

More than 1 in 5 Maryland children under age 18 -- over 240,000 in all -- lived with single parents, nearly twice the proportion of two decades ago, according to the population and housing data released by the Maryland Office of Planning.

Black families were particularly hard hit: Single parents headed more black Maryland families with children than married couples did in 1990, the census shows.

"These statistics are devastating," said Susan P. Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore non-profit group. "Having single-parent families is putting more and more children into poverty.

"The terrible thing is that all this is happening as the federal government is pulling out its stake in helping families," she said.

Andrew J. Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor who studies the family, said: "It's been a tough decade or two for families. Incomes have stagnated while marriage has been on the decline. These trends are not good for children."

The growth in single-parent families is due not only to out-of-wedlock births, but also to a rising divorce rate. In 1990, more than 286,000 Marylanders over 15 years old -- 7.5 percent -- were divorced, up from 5.7 percent a decade earlier and 2.8 percent in 1970.

The Maryland family fared worst in Baltimore. More than 4 in 10 city children lived with single parents; 1 in 5 lived with other relatives. The city's divorce rate was the state's highest, and almost 1 in 3 Baltimoreans over age 65 lived alone.

The rapidly growing elderly population, half a million strong, was a markedly different group -- racially and ethnically -- from the youngest Marylanders.

The over-65 group was 83 percent white, 15.5 percent black, 1.2 percent Asian and 1.1 percent Hispanic. In contrast, Marylanders under 5 years old were 28.5 percent black, 3.1 percent Asian, 3.4 percent Hispanic and only 66.8 percent white.

These figures were further proof for advocates of more government aid to children that they must have the support of the growing senior-citizen population.

"There are large numbers of the elderly, and they vote. There are large numbers of children, and they don't vote," Dr. Cherlin said.

Ms. Leviton said that while arresting the family's decline won't be easy, there is a "wide array of programs that can make a difference for kids," including preschool education, after-school mental health programs and prenatal care for pregnant women.

"We know how to birth healthy babies, but we don't have the political will to do it," she said.

Like the data on families, the census housing figures showed a continuing disparity between whites and blacks. They also revealed notable prosperity among the state's 139,000 Asian-Americans.

Blacks did increase their rate of homeownership, one measure of economic stability. Yet they still lagged well behind other groups as homeowners.

Black homeowners' houses were worth less, too -- $96,477 on average, compared with $149,860 for whites, $159,864 for Hispanics and $197,263 for Asians.

In the Baltimore area, the white-black gap in house value was least inHoward County and greatest in the city. Statewide, Talbot County showed the biggest disparity, with the average value of white-owned houses nearly three times more than that of blacks'.

Asians' and Hispanics' average house values probably were inflated by the high prices in the Washington suburbs, where most of them live. Also, many are newcomers who may report their homes' values more accurately than longtime residents.

The census reports also showed that:

* Nearly as many Marylanders lived in prisons and jails (27,025) as in college dormitories (30,892).

* More than two-thirds of Maryland's 6,532 boarded-up vacant houses were in Baltimore.

* Chinese-Americans (30,868) replaced Korean-Americans (30,320) as Maryland's largest Asian-American ethnic group. They were followed by Asian Indians, Filipinos and Vietnamese.

* The traditional Hispanic categories of Mexican-Americans, Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans accounted for only a third of the state's Latinos. Most fell into the "other Hispanic" category that includes Central Americans.

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