The ugly title of this attack on single moms in the New York Times, “How Single Motherhood Hurts Kids”, tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the content. The same can be said about some of the author’s other greatest hits like: “Gay Marriage vs. American Marriage” and “The Single-Mom Catastrophe.” In short, the message is: “Single moms, gay Dads, lesbian moms stop hurting America’s children!”
Which is not to say that there aren’t many important, legitimate, and contemporary questions about the effects of family dynamics on child well being that deserve thoughtful debate in the pages of the New York Times. Or that there aren’t many important and thoughtful people with diverse opinions from both the left and right on these issues who deserve to be heard from in the pages of the New York Times.
It is to say, however, that in 2014 the New York Times should not be publishing opinion pieces effectively arguing that parenting by members of a specific minority group “hurts kids.” That the parents being criticized in this case are either never-married or previously married should matter no more than if they are LGBT parents or parents with disabilities or parents over the age of 40s, etc.
The author closes by pointing to the consensus that “having a baby when you are 16 is just a really bad idea” and suggesting Americans should reach a similarly robust consensus that having children “outside of a committed relationship, which in the United States, at least, tends to mean marriage” is a really bad idea. But as the now two-decade-old Dan-Qualye-inspired debate over Murphy Brown’s decision to have a child “outside of a committed relationship” suggests, there will never be consensus among Americans on this.
Here, on the other hand, are some areas where I think there already are (or should be room for) robust consensus in America today:
- Increasing the minimum wage and taking other steps that would improve working-class living standards and family stability. As W. Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project, who I generally agree little with, has acknowledged: “Unless we improve the fortunes of poor working people... we aren’t going to see marriage coming back.”
- Supporting women and men (whether married or not) in ways that make it more likely that they delay kids (and marriage) until they have completed at least two years of post-secondary education and a couple of years in the workforce. Marriage promoters should remember here that divorce risk is quite high for couples who marry before their late 20s, and levels off after that, so it's not like just putting "marriage before baby carriage" is the answer.
- Acknowledging the extent of "married with kids" poverty in the United States. As I’ve written, there are more married parents of minor children living in poverty than never-married ones. While poverty rates are considerably higher for single-parent families than for married ones, most U.S. parents are married, so just comparing poverty rates between the two groups can lead to the false impression that there is very little married-with-kids poverty today. The most extreme version of this is the Rand-Paul fallacy, the mistaken idea that, as Paul put it in a recent speech, being "married with kids versus unmarried with kids is the difference between living in poverty and not." A related issue is how the current outdated poverty measure likely undercounts marital poverty, especially in high-cost cities like New York City. According to the updated poverty measure developed by the Bloomberg Administration, nearly 18 percent of two-parent families with kids in New York City live in poverty.
- Switching the policy conversation from the marketing-speak of "promoting marriage" to supporting healthy marriages and relationships. Important issues here include ones that help parents balance work/family, and access and afford health care, including mental health care. There are also whole set of issues related to the particular challenges that families with a disabled child or parent often face. As sociologist Dennis Hogan discusses in his important book on the family consequences of child disability, married parents caring for a child with a disability are more likely to divorce than those caring for a non-disabled child.
- Doing whatever we can to encourage and support greater father involvement both in married/co-residential unions and in families where the father is not living under same roof.
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