Robert Samuelson Gives Us Another Example of the Single-Parent Fallacy

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Monday, 13 January 2014 06:03

This Monday morning's gift comes in a column discussing the state of battle in the War on Poverty. He tells readers:

"Worse, the breakdown of marriage and spread of single-parent households suggest that poverty may grow. From 1963 to 2012, the share of families with children under 18 headed by a single parent tripled to 32 percent. It’s 26 percent among whites, 34 percent among Hispanics and 59 percent among African Americans. Just why is murky. Low-income men may flunk as attractive marriage mates. Or, “women can live independently more easily rather than put up with less satisfactory marriages,” as Brookings’s Isabel Sawhill says. Regardless of the causes and despite many exceptions, children in single-parent households face a harder future. They’re more likely to drop out of school, get pregnant before age 20 or be unemployed. Poverty becomes self-perpetuating."

The fallacy is that children are more likely to face hardship if their parents separate as oppose to remain together in a bad marriage. This point is easy to see.

Suppose that one third of marriages are very bad and possibly abusive, however it is illegal to get a divorce so that all parents remain married. Now suppose laws and norms change so that these parents can now divorce. In this case, we would have one-third of parents (mostly women) raising children on their own. Since these parents are the sole support of their kids, it wouldn't be surprising that their children would have a more difficult time than children who could benefit from the financial and emotional support of two loving parents. In addition, because the most troubled families had broken up, the married couples after the change in laws and norms would provide more nurturing families on average than before the change.

While a simple comparison of children in two-parent families and single-parent would undoubtedly show that children in two-parent families are doing better. However, it is wrong to infer from this fact that the children in single-parent families are doing poorly because their parents broke up. Whether or not children of parents who have a bad relationship are better off if they stay together is far more questionable.

The most obvious way to deal with the problems faced by children in single-parent families is to improve public supports such as quality child care and paid sick days. Countries that have such supports do not see the same story in child outcomes as the United States.