The marriage gap is now being recognized as one of the most pernicious social trends in American life. This fine article is a good example (New York Times, 7/15/12).
For over 40 years now, the institution of marriage has been under siege from all sides. Feminists, from Simone de Beauvoir to Katharine MacKinnon, have long excoriated marriage and motherhood as traps designed by a patriarchy bent on keeping women down. Family courts hastened to keep up with what state legislatures were taught – that the law shouldn’t make divorce too difficult because children raised in split households would be better off than if they had to live with parents in conflict. Hollywood movies, TV and other popular culture added their weight depicting husbands by turns as stupid, incompetent, brutal and childish, and fathers as at best clueless and at worst dangerous to their children. By contrast, wives and mothers were shown to be pining for freedom from the bondage of marriage, with them and their children blossoming when released from husbands and fathers.
Now we know that was all just made up. I’d like to say they were just kidding, that the rest of us just didn’t get the joke, but alas, no such luck. They were serious and now, after four decades or so of indoctrination, it turns out that feminists, pop culture and family law were all just flat wrong. Oh, I know this isn’t news. We’ve known for well over half that time that intact biological families provide by far the best environments for children. Back in 1993, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead authoritatively laid to rest any notion that single parenthood was “just another lifestyle choice” in Vice President Dan Quayle’s words. But even then, she was simply summarizing the literature on children and family structure that had itself been accumulating for decades.
What we knew then, we know even better now: children do better across a wide array of indices when they’re raised with both biological parents. Parents do better too. Married women are far less likely to be injured by a domestic partner than are unmarried women. Married men are more likely to be employed and out of prison than are their single counterparts. They’re also less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, commit suicide, be depressed, etc. In short, conventional as the notion may be, marriage is overwhelmingly good for all concerned including society at large.
But we’re still adding to our store of knowledge about the value of marriage. The latest data are concerned with that most obvious of all facts – married adults have more money than unmarried adults. They also have more time. Of course, we shouldn’t have to be told that. Everyone knows that two salaries support a family better than one, and that two people can do the childcare and household chores more easily than can one.
And yet we do have to be told. That’s because, to an astonishing degree, the growing gap between rich and poor in this country is attributable not to global economics, but to marital status. Amazingly enough, it is the poor and uneducated who are foregoing marriage, or at least putting it off until after the kids arrive. The great (largely) untold story of contemporary America is that the well-educated listened to all that feminist and Hollywood claptrap about the evils of men and marriage and knew it for what it was – nonsense. By now, we all know that some 42% of children are born to single mothers; what’s less well known is that under 10% of the children born to single mothers are born to women with at least a college degree. Among the rest of the population – those women with less than a college degree – the rate of single-mother childbearing is a whopping 60%.
Educated elites never bought the feminist line, only the poor and poorly-educated did.
And it turns out that that has an enormous effect on keeping the poor poor while expanding the opportunities for the better-educated and their kids.
While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.
Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”
Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.
“The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,” Ms. McLanahan said. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.”
She said, “I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.”
…“The people who need to stick together for economic reasons don’t,” said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist. “And the people who least need to stick together do.”
…But for inequality more broadly, Mr. Western found that the growth in single parenthood in recent decades accounted for 15 percent to 25 percent of the widening income gaps. (Estimates depend on the time period, the income tiers and the definition of inequality.) Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution found it to account for 21 percent. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, comparing lower-middle- and upper-middle-income families, found that single parenthood explained about 40 percent of inequality’s growth. “That’s not peanuts,” he said.
The Times article illustrates its message with two women who work at the same daycare center. One of them, Chris Faulkner, is married with two children and a husband who earns twice what she does. The other is her employee, Jessica Schairer, a single mother with three children. The contrast is telling, and it’s not all about money, although a lot of it is. The major differences between the two households have to do with the impact of family structure on the children of the two families. Faulkner’s kids are into swimming, baseball, karate and Boy Scouts. In the summers the whole family goes to Disney World. Schairer has neither the money nor the time for any of that; as a single mom, she can barely keep up with the basics – school, meals, homework, etc. When she had to undergo surgery for cancer, the doctor advised her to take six weeks off, but that was impossible. Schairer was back on the job in a week. She couldn’t afford to do anything else. The constant demands of a job and three children take their toll, a fact of which Schairer is all too aware.
“Two incomes would certainly help with the bills,” she said. “But it’s parenting, too. I wish I could say, ‘Call your dad.’ ”
As difficult as her life is, it’s hard to feel sorry for Schairer and to her credit, she seeks no sympathy. She first became pregnant when she was in college and, although she considered abortion, decided against it. She dropped out of school and remained with her son’s father who earned little and parented less, for reasons neither Schairer nor the article discusses. By age 25, she had three children, no husband, no degree and no job.
Articles about single motherhood aren’t rare. What is rare is any exploration of just how the women came to be single mothers. In what is otherwise an excellent article, the author doesn’t supply certain basic information, like what were Schairer’s contraceptive choices when she was with the father of her three children. She was born in 1981 which means she started college and childbearing in about 1999. In short, she had plenty of easy, effective and fairly inexpensive options to prevent conception. Did use them? After all, while no contraceptive is 100% effective, it’s not possible that the pill failed her three times in six years.
On the other hand, maybe there were health reasons she couldn’t take the pill or other hormone-based contraceptive. So what did they do, or not do? What were their negotiations over the use of condoms, if any? In short, in an age of easily available contraception plus abortion rights, why did Schairer have three children she couldn’t support? I’m not trying to absolve the father of responsibility, but the fact is that both she and he could have done what they could to prevent pregnancy. Obviously, neither of them did, but the article doesn’t inquire.
I raise the point because often, the issue of single motherhood is discussed in terms that make it seem beyond anyone’s control, like the weather. In fact, in almost all situations, no woman in the United States has to conceive or give birth to a child if she doesn’t want to. Articles discussing the issue should explore those conscious decisions more than they do.
Until then, elite opinion makers could do worse than to start preaching what we’ve known for so long – that marriage benefits everyone, especially kids. The economic facts alone are too obvious to ignore and too easy to understand. Elites have done more than their share to derail marriage in America; it’s long past time for them to take responsibility for the grave disservice they’ve done to children, fathers, mothers and society generally.
Thanks to Jim for the heads-up.