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July 17 2012

The Marriage Gap: Being a Single Mom Is a Recipe for Poverty

Charlotte Hays

"I am in this position because of decisions I made."

That is the most important sentence in a fascinating (and somewhat surprising) recent piece in the New York Times. Headlined “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,” the article compares two mothers, one married, one single.

With the piece Times reporter Jason DeParle joins Kay Hymowitz and Charles Murray in acknowledging that raising children is a task that requires two parents and that women who try to bring up their kids without a husband often end up in poverty.

While middle-class, college educated women may have had a fling with single parenthood in the 1960, now they by and large get married to raise children. But among women with no or only some college, this increasingly may not be the case. As late as 1990, according to the story, only about ten percent of these women had children out of wedlock. Now it is 30 percent, compared to 8 percent for college-educated women.

And that’s not the worst of the trend:

Less-educated women are also more likely to have children with more than one man. Analyzing nearly 2,000 mothers in their mid- to late 20s, Child Trends found that a third of those with high school degrees or less already had children with multiple men. So did 12 percent of mothers with some post-high-school training. But none of the women in the study who had finished college before giving birth had children with multiple men.

“That’s a dramatic difference, and it varies by education more than by race,” said Mindy Scott, a Child Trends demographer. “It tells you these families are on different trajectories. Having men in the house for a short time with ambiguous parenting roles can be really disruptive for children.”

DeParle contrasts the lot of Jessica Schairer, who got pregnant in college, and then dropped out to live with, but not marry the father, with that of her boss, Chris Faulkner, who is married and runs a day care center.

Because the Faulkner children are being raised in a two-paycheck family, they have all sorts of advantages. The Schairer children depend only on their mother’s hourly-wage income:

“I see Chris’s kids — they’re in swimming and karate and baseball and Boy Scouts, and it seems like it’s always her or her husband who’s able to make it there,” Ms. Schairer said. “That’s something I wish I could do for my kids. But number one, that stuff costs a lot of money and, two, I just don’t have the time.”

And the deprivations for Ms. Schairer’s children aren’t just financial. You get the sense that they would very much like to have a father around the house:

Ms. Schairer did not have a child with another man, but she did find a new boyfriend, who she thought would help with the children and the bills. They dated for a year before he moved in. Kirsten, 11, and Savannah liked him fine, but Steavon adored him.

“I’m not the only boy anymore; we’re going to do boy stuff!” Ms. Schairer recounts him saying.

“What’s boy stuff?” she asked.

“We’re going to play video games and shoot Nerf guns and play Legos,” he said.

“We do that now,” she said.

“Yeah, but you’re not a boy,” he said.

The details of what followed are less important than the disappointment the boyfriend left behind. No Legos got built during his six-month stay, and it took a call to the police to get him to go. The children asked about him a few days later but have not mentioned him since.

DeParle clutters his story with lots of rhetoric about “inequality,” as if Ms. Schairer’s problem is that some other people have a lot more money than she does. Her challenge is not that there is a wage gap, surely an abstraction to her, but that she can't take good care of her children (or herself--she only took a week off after an operation for cervical cancer). Despite evidence to the contrary presented in his own story, DeParle sees that single mother as a passive victim of circumstances.

Columnist John Leo, writing on the Manhattan Institute’s always interesting Minding the Campus blog, nailed this:

Coverage of the facts, by the knowledgeable reporter Jason DeParle, is solid. The problem is that single mothers are presented as victims of a tsunami of inequality that has little or nothing to do with their own behavior. The language is passive. Two-income families are presented as a sort of unfair advantage that descends on some married women more often than on single ones. One featured woman had "a troubled relationship that left her with three children..." and "marriage and its rewards (are) evermore confined to the fortunate classes." Who does this confining? We never learn.

But, as Leo notes, beyond DeParle’s attempt to portray passivity, there is the quote from Ms. Schairer:

"I am in this position because of decisions I made."

Only when we are ready to acknowledge that poverty is often the result of poor choices can we begin to alleviate it.

 

 



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