We should view lower-income single moms as heroes. Most of them make enormous sacrifices to raise their kids -- trying to balance work and parenthood in a society that offers them very little support. Many are forced to forgo opportunity to advance, working multiple jobs just to scrape by. But too often, they're villified – blamed not only for failing to “keep their man,” but also for America's persistently high poverty rate and dramatic inequality.
The idea that the decline of “traditional marriage” is the root cause of all manner of social problems is especially prominent on the political Right. Serious research into the causes of wealth and income inequality has not been kind to the cultural narratives conservatives tend to favor, but they nonetheless persist because such explanations have immense value for the Right. They offer an opportunity to shift focus from the damage corporate America's preferred economic policies have wrought on working people – union-busting, defunding social programs in order to slash taxes for those at the top and trade deals that make it easy for multinationals to move production to low-wage countries and still sell their goods at home – and onto their traditional bogeymen: feminism, secularism and whatever else those dirty hippies are up to.
The single mother, especially the black or brown single mother, plays an outsized-role in this discourse. A compelling body of research suggests that economic insecurity leads to more single-parent “broken homes,” yet the Right clings tirelessly to the myth that the causal relationship is the other way around.
Writing favorably of Charles Murray's Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Kay Hymowitz – a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and author of Marriage and Caste in America – set up a rather obvious straw-man when describing what she calls the “single-mother revolution.”
Defenders of the single-mother revolution often describe it as empowering for women, who can now free themselves from unhappy unions and live independent lives. That’s one way to look at it. Another is that it has been an economic catastrophe for those women. Poverty remains relatively rare among married couples with children; the U.S. Census puts only 8.8 percent of them in that category, up from 6.7 percent since the start of the Great Recession. But over 40 percent of single-mother families are poor, up from 37 percent before the downturn.
I have yet to encounter a “defender” of single-parent households who would suggest that they “empower” poorer women. For affluent women heading a household, the story is very different. The fact that she may not be stigmatized as she once was may indeed be empowering. But that's because studies have found that they don’t lose economic status at all—they maintain their position. That wouldn't be the case if there was something about being a single mother that inherently led to poorer economic outcomes – if that were the case, single-moms at every income level would fare worse than other women.
We tend to see wealthier single mothers as strong and heroic, juggling work and kids. And they are, but the reason they can do so is that they can afford whatever help they might need -- hiring nannies and tutors, or enrolling their kids in after-school programs.
But as Jean Hardisty, the author of Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: A Bogus Formula for Women, notes, it’s a different story for those without means. “Single mothers who are low-income... are constantly criticized by the general public,” she wrote, “and are held accountable for their single status rather than praised for finding self-fulfillment in motherhood. They are usually judged to be irresponsible, or simply unable to meet the child’s needs, including the supposed need for a father or father figure.”
Here, we also need to acknowledge the role of public- and corporate policies that make it harder for women without the means to hire help to juggle work and family life. American workplaces are uniquely inflexible. According to Harvard's Project on Global Working Families, the United States is one of only four countries out of 173 studied that doesn't mandate some form of paid maternal leave. The others – Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland – are all developing states. When faced with an illness, or a sick child, 145 countries offer some form of paid leave, and the United States is among the stingiest. The authors note that we offer “only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the [Family Medical Leave Act], which does not cover all workers.” This is, in part, a result of conservative complaints that mandated leave to deal with family emergencies is an unacceptable infringement on the “free market” – an argument made by the same people who would have us believe that poor single moms earned their poverty by raising kids alone.
The crux of the issue is that while it’s pretty self-evident that having one breadwinner instead of two (or one breadwinner and one parent to raise the kids) is an economic disadvantage -- and any number of studies have found that single-parent households (especially single-mother families) are more likely to be poor -- this “culture of poverty” narrative confuses correlation with causation.
Hardisty, writing specifically about poor people of color, notes that those living in poverty face tangible barriers to setting up and maintaining a stable, two-parent home:
Race accounts for several barriers to marriage in low-income communities of color. The disparate incarceration of men of color, job discrimination, and police harassment are three barriers that are race-specific. Other barriers are universally present for low-income people: low-quality and unsafe housing, a decrepit and underfunded educational system; joblessness; poor health care; and flat-funded day care . . . are some of the challenges faced by low-income women and men. These burdens make it difficult to set up stable, economically viable households, and also put stresses on couples that do marry.
In 1998, the Fragile Families Study looked at 3,700 low-income unmarried couples in 20 U.S. cities. The authors found that nine in 10 of the couples living together wanted to tie the knot, but only 15 percent had actually done so by the end of the one-year study period.
Yet here’s a key finding: for every dollar a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of the year rose by 5 percent. Men earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less than $25,000. Writing up the findings for the Nation, Sharon Lerner noted that poverty “also seems to make people feel less entitled to marry.”
As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.” Thus, since he was still scraping bottom, he wasn’t ready for it. “There’s an identity associated with marriage that they don’t feel they can achieve,” [Princeton sociology professor Sara] McLanahan says of her interviewees. (Ironically, romantic ideas about weddings—the limos, cakes and gowns of bridal magazines—seem to stand in the way of marriage in this context. Many in the study said they were holding off until they could afford a big wedding bash.)
And economic insecurity – and lack of education – also make it more likely that two-parent households will split, creating single moms and dads. In a review of the literature about the primary causes of divorce, Pennsylvania State University scholars Paul Amato and Denise Previti write that “studies indicate that education and income facilitate marital success. Education promotes more effective communication between couples, thus helping them to resolve differences. In contrast, the stress generated by economic hardship increases disagreements over finances, makes spouses irritable, and decreases expressions of emotional support.” Partly for these reasons, they write, socio-economic status “is inversely associated with the risk of divorce.”
Perhaps the most compelling reason to reject the cultural hypothesis pushed by people like Kay Hymowitz is that people with little money have the same attitudes about marriage as those with big bucks. Hardisty cited studies showing that “a large percentage of single low-income mothers would like to be married at some time. They seek marriages that are financially stable, with a loving, supportive husband.”
Poor women have the same dream as everyone else; Hardisty notes that they “often aspire to a romantic notion of marriage and family that features a white picket fence in the suburbs.” But the insecure economic status wrought by three decades of business-friendly “free market” policies leads to fewer stable marriages, not the other way around.