Single parent numbers in Merced, Central Valley increase by 27%

The number of single-parent families in Merced and the central San Joaquin Valley shot up over the past decade – by as much as 30%, according to newly released 2010 Census figures.

About one in three families with children is now headed by a single parent in Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Madera and Merced counties. Single-mother families make up more than 70% of these households.

The numbers worry community leaders. Children with two parents historically have had an advantage over children with one parent, they say. And with the economy in shambles, social programs to help these children overcome economic and developmental hurdles are becoming increasingly scarce. Fewer kids are apt to get the help they need.

"It's not to say that single parents can't be successful," said Kendra Rogers, executive director of First 5 Fresno County, which provides assistance to underprivileged children. "But those families need a lot of extra support. Unfortunately because of our economic situation, and because of cuts at the federal, state and county levels, we're seeing a lot of those support programs go away."

Fresno County's Cal-Learn program, for example, which helps 700 young mothers care for their children, is slated for the chopping block this summer.

The trend toward single parenting is not unique to the Valley. Fewer couples are marrying and more are putting off marriage until they're older, say population experts. Single-parent families increased 7.2% statewide between 2000 and 2010, according to the census.

The census figures do not indicate whether single parents are living with a partner or family member beside the children.

The Valley's jump in single parenting, though, has been much bigger than the state's, and local social workers and academics say there is more behind it than dwindling interest in marriage.

They suspect the region's historically high rate of teen births, most of which are to unwed mothers, is helping fuel the increase.

"A lot of our single parents are teens," said Cathi Huerta, director of Fresno County's Department of Social Services, adding that young parents have more difficulty raising kids and require more in the way of public assistance.

While the census does not track the ages of single parents, the Public Health Institute ranks Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Madera and Merced counties as having among the 10 highest teen birth rates in California. The rates have dropped slightly over the past decade.

Still, in these five counties, medical and support expenses associated with teen births cost taxpayers more than $100 million annually, according to the nonprofit institute.

The reason for more teen births in the Valley, say family researchers, is economics.

Teen parents tend to come from poorer families and from where education and opportunity are lacking, such as the Fresno area, said Xuanning Fu, associate professor of sociology at California State University, Fresno.

"Young mothers might associate having a child with a sense of pride and a way to improve themselves and their situation," Fu said. "These single mothers are almost always low-income."

Unfortunately, having a child only makes it harder for teen mothers to escape economic hardship. This begins with getting a high school diploma and a job, which can be difficult to do while caring for a child. As a result, the same conditions often persist for children of single parents, Fu said, continuing a cycle of teen pregnancy.

To try to halt the cycle, community leaders have banked on pregnancy-prevention programs and assistance for teen mothers.

Sheila Pacheco, 17, who has a nearly 2-year-old daughter, has been part of Fresno County's Cal-Learn program, where she has received guidance and financial aid during her pregnancy and early years as a single mother.

The program seeks to provide teen parents the support they need to finish high school and become self-sufficient.

Pacheco's counselor "was the only one I knew who knew about my situation and could give me good advice," said Pacheco, who said she got help addressing her myriad issues with parents, boyfriend, child-care and school. "If I had questions, I would just call her."

After two years in the program, Pacheco will get her high school diploma next month and hopes to start at Fresno City College soon.

The future of Cal-Learn, however, is not as bright.

State funding for the program has been suspended for a year starting July 1, county officials report.

County social workers are scrambling now to identify the 200 highest priority Cal-Learn cases of the total 700. The rest will be dropped.

"It's going to be bad," said Yang Lee, a Cal-Learn social worker who makes monthly home visits to the teens. "We're not going to be able to engage the teen parents the way we used to."

Lee said a yearlong suspension of Cal-Learn will have longer repercussions. Most of the relationships between counselors and teens have taken time to develop, he said, and re-establishing relationships can take months before progress returns.

Cal-Learn is just one of the teen pregnancy programs being cut, said Patsy Montgomery, an associate vice president for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, which serves the central San Joaquin Valley. Public and private grants for other teen efforts also are being scaled back, she noted.

"The work preventing second pregnancies among teens with children and preventing first pregnancies is going to be lost," she said.

Rogers, with First 5 Fresno County, said a lack of resources for teen fathers already may be taking a toll.

While single mothers still outnumber single fathers almost three to one in California, the number of single-father families increased 20% over the past decade, according to the census. That compares to a 3% increase statewide for single-mother families.

Tulare County had the state's biggest spike in single fathers, at 54%.

"We need to give the same support and consideration for dads and what they're trying to navigate," Rogers said. "It used to be a given that the children go with Mom. But the courts seem to be giving just as much consideration now to Dad."