The NYT and the 'Disorganized Single-Mother' Meme

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Tuesday, 28 August 2012 12:45

I remember being struck several years ago by David Brooks' odd use of the adjective "disorganized" to describe single-parent families. As he put it in the New York Times in 2007: "A human capital agenda ... means preserving low income-tax rates .... [and] creating high-quality preschools for children from disorganized single-parent homes."  I'm all for high-quality preschools, although for reasons that have little to do with either home organization or single-parenthood. Personally, I think pre-K should be universal, and shouldn't be limited to children living in single-parent households whose parents aren't able to keep their closets and counters clutter-free. But I guess if, like Brooks, your main goal is preserving low taxes for the 1 percent, you might think this kind of rationing of pre-K is necessary.

I suspected at the time that "disorganized single-parent" was simply a more genteel and NYT-reader-friendly way of saying what Charles Murray once said at a Capitol Hill symposium about single mothers: "There is a dirty little secret about the problem of out-of-wedlock births to poor women. The dirty little secret is that very large numbers of them are rotten mothers." That, of course, is something that one can say in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal or other Murdoch papers, but not in the Grey Lady.

I hadn't thought about this much until this year, when the "disorganized-single-mother" meme resurfaced in several NYT pieces written by Brooks and other like-minded journalists at the NYT

David Brooks in January 2012: "Roughly 7 percent of the white kids in the upper tribe are born out of wedlock, compared with roughly 45 percent of the kids in the lower tribe. .... Members of the lower tribe [30 percent of the country according to Brooks] live in disorganized, postmodern neighborhoods in which it is much harder to be self-disciplined and productive." Got it? Disorganized-single-parent homes = disorganized neighborhoods.

David Brooks in February 2012: "As Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise reported in The Times on Saturday, these days, more than half of the births to women under 30 occur outside of marriage. .... The old settled social structures were stifling to many creative and dynamic people (and in those days discrimination stifled people even more). But people who were depressed, disorganized and disadvantaged were able to lead lives enmeshed in supportive relationships." 

Jason DeParle in July 2012: "That is the essence of the story of Ms. Faulkner and Ms. Schairer. What most separates them is not the impact of globalization on their wages but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin." DeParle doesn't use the word "disorganized" to describe the man-less Ms. Faulker, but the whole narrative structure of his piece rests on the disorganized-single-mother/organized-married-mother opposition.

Paul Tough in August 2012: "[A] YAP counselor named Sean Lett ... told me ... 'If you don’t have a father figure in your life, you don’t have discipline and structure, and without structure, you don’t have anything. You have chaos.'” "... when [counselor Steve Gates] talked about the root cause of the problems his YAP clients were facing in school and in life, he always came back to their home environments. 'Take a close look at our kids’ family structures, and you get a perfectly clear picture of why they are the way they are,' Gates told me. 'There is a very direct correlation between family issues and what the kids present in school. The lapses in parenting, the dysfunction — it all spills over to the kids, and then they take that to school and the streets and everywhere else.'" Tough is quoting (male) counselors here, but in an accompanying piece he seems to concur when he puts the lack of "sufficient family structures" at the center of his concerns. For Tough, a single-parent family structure is apparently an "insufficient" family structure, which sounds even worse than "disorganized" to me.

So, why this sudden resurgence of the disorganized-single-mother meme in the NYT? I'm guessing it has something to do with Charles Murray, whose new book came out just before all of these pieces were written, and who is mentioned (and I'm sure was carefully read) by both DeParle and Tough.

This isn't to say that everyone at the NYT has drank the Murraytown kool-aid. For a more balanced take, read Nicholas Confessore's review of Murray's "Coming Apart": 

While Murray’s new upper class was taking home an ever greater share of national wealth, incomes for almost everyone else were stagnating. During the decade preceding the 2008 bust, according to the Census Bureau, median family income in the United States dropped from $61,000 a year to $60,500.
Indeed, in comparison with the early 1960s, American workers today are less likely to have pensions, less likely to be able to support a family on a single income and, until the much-reviled ObamaCare law kicks in, less likely to be able to afford health insurance if their employer doesn’t provide it. Working-class whites are different from the cognitive elite in at least one way: They have less money.

Brooks at least is a minority voice in the opinion pages. But there's no such excuse for DeParle and Tough. The NYT needs new voices (and some diversity) on their poverty beat.   

Tags: children | inequality | marriage | media | poverty | working class