I am about to spend some time reading and responding to comments but before I do that I thought I’d put up a short post about a long story from yesterday’s NYT. It’s a story–like many others about single mothers–that I found particularly frustrating.
The story is built around a contrast between two women who have much in common. Here’s the second paragraph which is written to emphasize the commonality:
They are both friendly white women from modest Midwestern backgrounds who left for college with conventional hopes of marriage, motherhood and career. They both have children in elementary school. They pass their days in similar ways: juggling toddlers, coaching teachers and swapping small secrets that mark them as friends. They even got tattoos together. Though Ms. Faulkner, as the boss, earns more money, the difference is a gap, not a chasm.
The story then pivots to a signal difference between the women:
But a friendship that evokes parity by day becomes a study of inequality at night and a testament to the way family structure deepens class divides. Ms. Faulkner is married and living on two paychecks, while Ms. Schairer is raising her children by herself. That gives the Faulkner family a profound advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages.
On one level there’s something that seems fairly obvious here: If you have two incomes that are pooled and two people sharing the labor (emotional and physical) for child care life is going to be easier. You’ll have both more money and more time and energy to devote to raising the kids (as well as to the rest of your life) and this will, in the long run, be a good thing for everyone involved. The support the two parents can offer each other will also be beneficial.
Trying to do the same things with less (time, energy, money and general support) will be harder. It no doubt takes a toll.
Of course, any individual single mother and her children can do fine–we are not, as individuals, bound by the statistical categories we fall into. There are individual women who are taller than the vast majority of men even if the average woman is shorter than the average man. The article acknowledges this even as it notes the generalized disadvantages these families face:
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.
Of course, as has frequently been noted, single motherhood (or at least, motherhood outside of marriage) is on the rise. Perhaps, as the article suggests, this relates to the widening income gap in our country. In any event, it would seem that we have a problem and that it has something to do with the prevelance of single motherhood.
But this is where I get frustrated. If we really do have a problem and if we really do want to solve it, then we really do need to understand it. That requires some care. And articles like this one don’t quite take enough care. We don’t, in the end, know enough about cause and effect.
For instance, Andrew Cherlin suggests that privileged Americans are marrying and then marrying helps them stay privileged. Women who do not finish college are less likely to marry when they have children, and not finishing college is (in and of itself) rarely a ticket to financial success.
Perhaps this is consistent with the study I wrote about a while back? Maybe the root cause problem is poverty and lack of opportunity which leads women to see having children as about the best thing they can do with their time–even if the circumstances under which they will have them aren’t ideal? Maybe what we need to do is encourage women to stay in college–which could be done in a host of ways.
The further I read into the article the more confusing it seems the picture becomes. What, after all, do the different people mean by single mothers? Remember that more than one-half non-martial births occur within cohabitig relationships? Are those women single mothers in the view of the different experts speaking here? Is the problem lack of marriage or lack of male involvment in child rearing or something else entirely?
In the end I’m not at all sure what the article is a call for. We have tried, as a culture, to promote marriage–this was a policy priority for the Bush administration as I recall. I don’t recall that it was a particularly resounding success. Encouraging unstable and unhappy couples to marry doesn’t make them into stable and happy couples–it just means that more married couples are unstable and unhappy.
To be fair, the article does note the cyclical relationships of many of the factors discussed: economic woes contribute to marital instability and marital instability then contributes to economic woes so on. But in the end I am left with no clear picture of the root causes here and only a vague sense that somehow getting mothers to marry will make it all better. Maybe it’s not fair to look to the press for painstaking analysis of complicated social problems but there’s something so frustrating to me about the fuzzy generalizations that this article ends up offering.
Then again, maybe the heat and lack of rain are making me cranky?