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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Not All Single Mothers Are Alike … or All Really Single

May 5, 2016

Mother’s Day weekend seems a good time for another post on single mothers — a topic that consistently brings more Googlers to my blog than almost any other.

I’m taking a different approach than I did in the past because much of what one finds in public sources is muddled — and so the solution wrong-headed.

We see right-wing conservatives still promoting marriage as a key to ending poverty. And not only them. The center-left Brookings Institution joined with the center-right American Enterprise Institute to produce an anti-poverty plan. It too endorses promoting marriage.

Both the muddle and the marriage promotion stem in part from the same source — a conflation of single motherhood with unplanned out-of-wedlock births. They also reflect some incontrovertible data and some controversial studies linking single-parent families to bad outcomes for kids.

The data come from the Census Bureau. Year after year, it reports far higher percents of single-mother families in poverty than married couples with minor-age children in the same financial straits.

The assumption then is that single mothers and their children would be better off if married. Which leads to the further assumption that single mothers became mothers without first marrying — and did so accidentally. Neither reflects the realities of our society — perhaps even less than in the past.

We’ve got research now, for example, that flips cause and effect. Kathryn Edin, who actually lived in poor communities and got to know women there, found that they would have chosen marriage if they’d found a suitable spouse — specifically, a reliable, clean-living, nonviolent breadwinner. Severe shortage, as Edin explains.

The women had children anyway because they wanted them and saw no point in delaying motherhood, feeling they’d be poor no matter what. Children, in fact, satisfied a felt need for meaning in life.

I want, however, to focus on the second pair of assumptions. As my title suggests, not all single mothers are alike. That is, they’re not all single and mothers for the same reasons. And, as it also suggests, they’re not all single — at least, from their point of view.

First off, single mothers include those who got divorced or became widows and didn’t remarry. Many, but far from all live in poverty — because they’re not getting much, if anything by way of child support, in the former cases, or Social Security benefits for their children, in the latter.

Some would be no better off if they still had a husband in the house. Nor would their children. We still see the term “deadbeat dads” used to refer to absent fathers who choose not to pay child support.

But live-in husbands can be deadbeats too. Guys who could, but don’t work or even try to. Guys who do work, but use what they earn to buy alcohol, drugs, fancy clothes for themselves, etc. So the home is rife with stress and anger — violence too perhaps. The children suffer. The mom opts for peace and control of the cash flow.

Then we’ve got mothers who aren’t legally married, but live with a partner in a relationship that’s for all intents and purposes a marriage, though with the advantages our laws confer on spouses.

We’ve got more so-called cohabiting couples now than even a generation ago. This, it seems, is at least in part because young adults no longer view marriage as a “cornerstone,” but as a “capstone” — something to postpone until they’re sure they’re ready and “have all their ducks lined up.”

But they’re not delaying parenthood. The share of births to cohabiting mothers increased from 6% in the early 1980s to 25% in 2009-13, according to the National Center for Family & Marriage Research.

It distinguishes these mothers from single mothers, but they’re officially single nonetheless. They’re different, the Center for American Progress says, because cohabitation is typically “a transitional stage” — either a prelude to a first marriage or an interlude before a second.

That may be more than case now than it was only a few years ago because same-sex couples can now legally marry. Still, we need to recognize lesbians in long-standing domestic relationships who chose to become mothers.

They’re not the only single women who became mothers by choice. As you may have read, the teen birthrate is dropping. At the same time, the out-of-wedlock birthrate among women 35 and older has risen.

We know anecdotally that some wanted to have children for quite awhile and figured that marriage just wasn’t in the cards — or that it wasn’t what they wanted before their biological clock ticked further past their prime childbearing years.

So, for them, a sort of planned parenthood we don’t ordinarily think of when we hear the term — thanks to the wonders of medical technology.

Other women in their mid-thirties become single mothers in a different way. A dear friend of mine, for example, wanted to raise a child, saw no prospect of marriage and discovered she was infertile.

So she adopted a baby left with an agency by a mother who couldn’t care for him, confident that she had the financial and personal resources, including a close-knit family to give him a secure, loving childhood.

Another single woman I know — the successful head of her own professional services firm — recently a adopted a baby for similar reasons. They’re not the only single women who’ve made this choice — some, in fact, when considerably older.

Our country does a lousy job of supporting mothers — and to that extent, a lousy job of supporting children in any sort of family. An especially lousy job of supporting single mothers and their children, as their unusually high poverty rates indicate.

Single mothers, unlike their married counterparts, still get a bad rap for having failed to exercise personal responsibility, driving up safety-net costs, crime and other social ills.

I’d rather celebrate them in all their variety. Better, I think, than conceding Mother’s Day to Hallmark, Teleflora and the perfume and candy purveyors.