CINCINNATI — Nobody thinks it will be easy to reduce our region's shameful child poverty rate.
But a national expert said Friday there are three seemingly simple things people can do to ensure that they — and their kids — aren't poor:
• Finish high school.
• Wait until they're at least 21 — and married — before having children.
• And work.
Families who do all those things are far more likely to earn more than $60,000 per year and fall into the middle class, said Ron Haskins, a senior fellow in the Economic Studies program and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution.
Those who don't are far more likely to be poor, he said, and have children who become mired in poverty.
"Pick your parents carefully," Haskins told the 150 people gathered to hear him speak at the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. "It really makes a big difference."
The Child Poverty Collaborativeinvited Haskins to town to help inform the group's efforts to reduce Hamilton County's child poverty rate.
Related: Childhood poverty rate keeps getting worse
The collaborative aims to come up with a plan to lift 10,000 children out of poverty and help 5,000 unemployed or underemployed adults get good jobs. The group's original goal was to unveil a plan this summer. But Executive Director Lynn Marmer said Friday it will probably take until late October or early November to get an initial plan completed.
"Our goal is to have at least 100 community conversations," she told the group assembled for the meeting with Haskins. "To have 100, substantive community conversations, we need some time. Because we really want to do this right, and we want to cover a lot of voices in the community that haven't been heard before."
If the questions posed to Haskins after his speech Friday are any indication, there are bound to be big differences of opinion when topics such as marriage and birth control become part of those conversations.
Meeting People Where They Are
Several people who listened to Haskins' speech seized on his comments about marriage.
One woman argued it's important to figure out who quits high school, who doesn't work and who doesn't wait to have children and what characteristics those people share and work on those characteristics — not just the behaviors they produce.
Donna Jones Baker, the CEO of the Urban League of Greater Southwestern Ohio and a co-chair of the Child Poverty Collaborative, was more blunt.
"It feels to me a little like we're trying to bring back the horse and buggy because individuals believe that there are too many accidents now with cars," she said. "Why are we putting so much energy into saying this is what you should do based on what I think you should do rather than thinking about policy that can help people where they are?"
Haskins responded that she — and everyone else at the meeting and throughout the community — should feel free to ignore him.
But he said there is a lot of research to show that children who live in stable, two-parent households with working parents do better than kids who don't.
"Kids are five to six times more likely to be poor if they're in a single-parent family versus a married family," he said. "If we can keep families together, that would have a major impact on poverty rates."
Haskins added that giving low-income women more options for low-cost, effective birth control would help, too.
"Sixty percent of births to single women under the age of 30 are unplanned," he said.
Communities that work to provide low-cost birth control can reduce the poverty rate, reduce the number of abortions performed and have healthier babies overall, Haskins said.
Some women told me privately after the event that Haskins' comments seemed to focus an awful lot on women and their roles and responsibilities.
But in Cincinnati, at least, women are the people poor kids are counting on: Research from The Women's Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation has found that two out of every three poor children in Cincinnati live with single mothers.
Not As Simple As It Sounds
Haskins was quick to say he's not advocating that women should get married just for the sake of getting married.
Women in low-income neighborhoods are "discerning," he said.
"A big factor in their decision to marry someone is, does the guy have an income? Does he have a stable income?" Haskins said.
But fewer men in the U.S. are working than ever before, he said. And fewer than half of black men between the ages of 20 and 24 had jobs in 2013, he said.
All that gets back to how complicated the problem of childhood poverty really is.
It sounds simple to get a job. But people with felony convictions on their records often struggle to find a company that will hire them.
It sounds simple to say get married. But women don't want to marry men who don't have stable jobs, and huge numbers of men have trouble getting them.
And it sounds simple to say wait until you're at least 21 and married to have kids. But despite the fact that marriage rates are going down, Haskins said, "people still are inclined to have sex."
"And as a result, our non-marital birth rate has soared."
So does that mean our community should be in the birth control business?
The whole discussion left some people at Friday's meeting more discouraged than ever. Where, they wondered, should we as a community start?
But I think the Child Poverty Collaborative has the right idea. We have to start by talking to each other — even about things that can make us uncomfortable and about which we will disagree.
We can't count on Haskins or anyone else to come into town and give us the answers. We as a region have to come up with a plan that will work for us.
Too many kids are struggling for us to dodge the tough questions, and we as a community have no time to waste.
To contact the Child Poverty Collaborative and find out more about hosting a community conversation, email email@example.com.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.