This weekend, in a New York Times op-ed entitled “Single Mothers Are Not the Problem,” three sociologists argue that reducing single motherhood would not significantly lower poverty rates in the United States. If we were really serious about alleviating poverty, they maintain, we would introduce “generous social policies” more in line with those in other rich democracies.
It’s a textbook example of social science as advocacy, which is not to say that the study on which the Times piece was based, due to appear in the prestigious American Journal of Sociology, is fake news. The authors show that as a percentage of all households, single-mother homes have declined since 1980. Those low numbers—in 2013, only 8.8 percent of Americans lived in single-mother homes, down from 10.5 percent in 1980—mean that further reducing such households wouldn’t have much impact on national poverty rates. They also argue that single motherhood is a less useful predictor of poverty than low levels of education, unemployment, and “forming households at young ages.”
But by using the metric of “households,” lead researcher David Brady and his coauthors camouflage the primary reason that family scholars have gotten so hot and bothered about single motherhood: the children. Yes, the percentage of single-mother households has declined; that’s largely an artifact of demographic changes that have increased the overall number of households. Those changes, including mass immigration, later marriage, and more people living alone, are largely irrelevant to the well-being of American children. But during the same decades that the authors show the rate of single-parent households declining, the percentage of children living with a single mother tripled.
Nor do the authors mention any of the other numbers that continue to alarm demographers, social scientists, and family researchers. Children in single-parent homes are three times as likely to be poor as children living with their married parents. Brookings scholars Isabel Sawhill and Adam Thomas ran a simulation analysis in which they “married off” potential single parents. They concluded that if the proportion of single-parent families had remained the same in 1998 as it was in 1970, child-poverty rates would have been 20 percent lower.
Nor would you guess from the Times article that poverty is far from the only reason to view single parenthood with concern. Kids in single-parent homes have lower educational achievement, commit more crime, and suffer more emotional problems, even when controlling for parental income and education. Not only do young men and women from intact families (regardless of race and ethnicity) get more education and earn higher earnings than those raised with single mothers; they also do better than children who have a stepparent at home. Children growing up in an area where single-parent families are the norm have less of a chance of upward mobility than a child who lives where married-couple families dominate (regardless of whether that child lives with a single parent or with married parents). The evidence that the prevalence of single-parent households poses risks to individual children and communities goes on and on.
Yet even those risks understate the extent to which the authors of “Single Mothers Are Not the Problem” ignore the effects of family fragmentation on children. When they refer to “two parents,” they include cohabiting parents and stepparent families—a common but misleading trope in the social sciences. “Two-parent” households do not necessarily signify stable family lives, and cohabiting unions are considerably more fragile than those of married parents. Cohabiters are twice as likely to break up before their child’s 12th birthday; the difference holds for couples at all education levels. By age 12, reports Wendy Manning, 40 percent of American children will have spent at least part of their lives in cohabiting households. Stepparents generally mean higher incomes for the children in the house but also lower educational achievement and higher rates of criminal involvement.
How should we address the disquieting gaps in childhood well-being stemming from the family changes of the past 50 years? For many liberals, including the authors, Denmark is the answer. The paper compares poverty rates of single mothers in the United States after taxes and transfers with those in other rich democracies. Not surprisingly, Scandinavia—especially Denmark—stands at the head of the class. “Because of [Denmark’s] generous social policies,” the writers explain, “single mothers and their children have a similar level of economic security as other families.”
Perhaps, but some questions about the researchers’ definitions are already being raised. The larger point is that welfare policies can’t be understood apart from a country’s historical, cultural, and demographic realities. In recent decades, the United States has seen a large influx of low-skilled immigrants who, while hardworking, often need to rely on government help to pay for food, health care, and bilingual education for their children. The country’s relatively modest social-safety net has (arguably) kept those costs under control. The far more generous welfare policies of Denmark, on the other hand, limit the number of poor immigrants that the country can support. In 2016, the country dramatically restricted immigration, determining it “a serious threat to public order and national security.” Moreover, while Denmark’s generosity provides economic security, it may not lead to upward mobility for children. Immigrant children are considerably less successful in school than native-born children, while the achievement gap between children in single-mother and married-couple homes is higher than in the United States.
“We should stop obsessing over how many single mothers there are and stop shaming them,” Brady and his coauthors conclude. Really, though, we should stop obsessing about Denmark—and stop shaming those worried about the effects of family breakdown on American children and communities.
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