So Much Wrong With Single Mother Stereotype

May 22, 2017

Posts on single motherhood consistently rank among my weekly top-10 viewed. I’ve published nothing on the issues for quite awhile.

So I’ll take a brief break — and give you one too — from the stream of reports, op-eds, forecasts and the like sparked by turbulence in the White House and fractiousness in the Congress.

Here’s some of what we learn from the aptly-titled Single Mother Guide, fleshed out from other sources and what’s stashed in my own brain.

What Single Mother Commonly Means and What It Should

First off, a bit of clarification. Single mothers, in all the standard data sources, are only unmarried women raising minor-age children. Widows who’ve sole responsibility for grandchildren don’t count. Likewise women not currently married who’ve let adult children move back in with them.

Social conservatives often speak disapprovingly of single mothers as women who gave birth out of wedlock and didn’t then enter into holy matrimony with a male breadwinner.

But somewhat more single mothers are either widowed, separated from their spouses or divorced — roughly 51%, according to the latest Census data. .

This isn’t new, but the percent is shifting toward the never-married. It doesn’t mean that all the never-married mothers had babies, however. Single women may choose to adopt a child, as several of my long-time friends have.

It also doesn’t mean that the never-married mothers have no adult in the house with whom they’re in a quasi-spousal relationship.

Perhaps fewer now that same-sex marriages are legal nationwide. But opposite-sex domestic partnerships so far outstripped them when the Supreme Court ruled the former a Constitutional right that they’re probably stillmore common.

On the other hand, an as-yet unknown number of same-sex marriage partners are officially single mothers because some state laws and/or administrative procedures prohibit or otherwise deter their spouses from adopting.

Recent Single Mother Trends

What’s definitely shifting is the age when single mothers first give birth. The teenage birthrate has hit another record low. Researchers have tried to tease out reasons. The one that seems most certain is more use of contraceptives, especially the maximally-effective long-acting, reversible kinds.

Economist Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution is championing LARCs, having earlier coauthored an oft-cited study that found a very low likelihood of poverty among people who married before becoming parents.

Some of you may recall how some conservatives seized on this as a simple, personally responsible way to avoid poverty.

But Sawhill’s concluded that it’s not a realistic basis for an anti-poverty strategy, given the upward trend in unmarried motherhood. She would instead have us promote “responsible parenthood,” i.e., choosing when to have a baby — and to make the choice easy and cheap.

What Accounts for Single Mother Poverty

We’ve got a debate on solutions to out-of-wedlock births, rooted in ideological differences. What’s beyond debate is the strong link between single motherhood and poverty.

Single-mother families consistently have the highest poverty rate of any household type — currently 28.2%, as compared to 5.4% for married couples. Whether the out-of-wedlock births or the poverty came first is an open question.

Most of our best research suggests both. We see, for example, that out-of-wedlock births are far less common among college graduates than women with at most a high school diploma.

So the former can earn far more by working — and live even better because college graduates tend to marry others even more than they used to.

Pregnancy surely compels some young women to drop out of high school, having no one to care for their child.

They’re then unable to work — at least for enough pay to keep the family out of poverty — because they’re still without the child care and lack the minimal credential so many employers require.

On the other hand, Kathryn Edin, best known as the coauthor of $2 a Day, earlier coauthored a study of poor single mothers. It too was based in part on her actually living in poor neighborhoods and gaining the trust of the people whose experiences and views she sought to understand.

Single mothers she interviewed there wanted children — “somebody to take care of,” as one said. But when they looked at their prospects for a trustworthy, breadwinning husband, they concluded the risks outweighed the potential rewards.

An Altogether Different Explanation

The cause-effect interaction the various studies indicate has commonsense appeal, as well as substantive credibility. But a recently-published study by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Board raises doubts.

It looks at wealth, rather than income. But, of course, the one begets the other and vice versa. The researchers tested various potential causes of wealth differences, including family structure.

When they looked at that factor within specific race/ethnicity groups, rather than across the whole sample, they found little or no correlation. “[T]he bottom line,” a summary concludes,” is that links between family structure and wealth are weak, inconsistent and mostly spurious.”

We need to look instead at factors related directly to race. We know more than enough to know how the legacy of slavery, out-and-out discrimination and less overt forms built into our income-related systems account for a large portion of the black/white wealth gap.

And we do, in fact, see that the percent of children being raised in single-parent families, mostly by mothers is higher for blacks than any other race/ethnicity group the Census Bureau breaks out.

Might they perhaps find a unique shortage of men who’d be suitable marriage material.

Might they also find positive role models in the single black mothers who’ve successfully raised children without the spousal role model some still insist that kids, boys especially need to stay out of trouble, on the path to a paying job, etc.

As I write this, I think of Mom, who raised two fine boys, including my late husband — and of what moms like her will likely face unless Congress basically scraps the proposed budget they’ll get from Trump on strikethrough Tuesday.

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In Defense of Unwed Dads

June 14, 2013

Nearly 41% of children are born to unwed mothers. Most of the research has focused on them and their moms, especially those at the bottom of the income scale.

But, of course, for every unwed mother there’s a dad — not necessarily unmarried, mind you.

In most cases, however, it seems he is. According to several studies, about half of unmarried parents were living together when their children were born.

But they often break up. And when that happens, a high percent of fathers disengage, as Robert Lehrman reports in a broad review of the “capabilities and contributions” of unwed fathers.

One study he cites found that by the time their kids were five, nearly half the dads hadn’t seen them for a month. Thirty-seven percent had had no contact with them for two years.

This would seem to feed some well-worn stereotypes — fathers who shrug off responsibilities for their children, including child support. The infamous “deadbeat dads.”

A new book by sociologists Kathryn Edin and Timothy Nelson challenges the stereotypes, as its title indicates — Doing the Best I Can.

The book is the product of seven years of research in Camden, New Jersey and low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods — much of it in-depth interviews with unwed fathers.

The pre-history, as the introduction indicates, has a strongly racial flavor.

In public discourse, we can trace it back to 1965, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan identified out-of-wedlock births as a symptom of the breakdown of the Negro family.

Or since his work was swiftly marginalized, to the mid-1980s, when Bill Moyers hosted a special CBS report on “The Vanishing Family: A Crisis in Black America.”

What’s happened since is that unwed fatherhood has become more of a class phenomenon, Edin says.

Different studies provide somewhat different figures — none that I’ve found very current because they all rely on an ongoing study of a group of children born in big cities between 1998 and 2000.

According to these “fragile families” data, a majority of unwed fathers are racial or ethnic minorities, with black, non-Hispanics accounting for 46%.

But other research clearly indicates that race/ethnicity itself isn’t the key factor. The biggest difference between unwed fathers and fathers married to the mothers of their newborns is income.

In 2005, the former earned, on average, only $15,465 at the time their children were born — about $18,100 less than new, married fathers.

More than half of the “fragile families” dads who were still living with the mothers by the time their children were five earned less than $15,000.

The main explanation for these very low earnings is lack of the formal education credentials that are increasingly the passport to living wage jobs.

In the same fragile families sample cited above, 81.6% of the unwed dads had, at most, a high school diploma or GED. More than 45% of them had less. A mere 2.2% had a college degree.

Most low-income mothers understandably want a husband who’s a reliable breadwinner. It’s their top priority, Edin found in an earlier interview-based study.

And both they and their low-income partners apparently share the growing view that marriage should await financial stability — at something like a middle-class level, it seems, since they speak of a home, a car, a wedding we can assume isn’t at the courthouse.

This helps explain why only a fraction of unwed parents in the fragile families sample view childbirth as a signal to marry, even though 82% of them were living together or otherwise “romantically involved” at the time their children were born.

Also why the fathers tend to disengage over time — not always willingly, however. A fair number, the Edin-Melson team found, were pushed away when the moms found a better-off partner.

Perhaps the most important thing the team found, however, is that the unwed dads welcome fatherhood. They want a relationship with their child.

They have what Edin calls a “father thirst” — and among blacks especially, a determination to do a better job of fathering than their own dads did.

So the unwed dads aren’t, by and large, men “who impregnate women and selfishly flee,” as arch-conservative William Bennett fulminated.

Nor are they reflecting a biological propensity to “hit and run” sexuality, as family values champion David Blankenhorn claimed.

“They want to be nurturers,” Edin says. But our public policies treat them as “paychecks and not as parents,” i.e. focus only on ensuring they pay child support.

Even when they can’t — because they’re in jail, for example, and likely to return because they can’t pay the accumulated debt.

Even when — or perhaps especially when — the money is used to reimburse federal and state welfare payments, rather than to provide poor mothers with some additional funds for their children’s needs.

We have publicly-funded “responsible fatherhood” programs — and have had for some time.

Seems to me we’d do better to recognize that unwed dads want to be responsible and do what we can to make that possible.