We should view lower-income single moms as heroes. Most of them make enormous sacrifices to raise their kids — trying to balance work and parenthood in a society that offers them very little support. Many are forced to forego opportunity to advance, working multiple jobs just to scrape by. But too often, they’re villified – blamed not only for failing to “keep their man,” but also for America’s persistently high poverty rate and dramatic inequality.
The idea that the decline of “traditional marriage” is the root cause of all manner of social problems is especially prominent on the political Right. Serious research into the causes of wealth and income inequality has not been kind to the cultural narratives conservatives tend to favor, but they nonetheless persist because such explanations have immense value for the Right. They offer an opportunity to shift focus from the damage corporate America’s preferred economic policies have wrought on working people – union-busting, defunding social programs in order to slash taxes for those at the top and trade deals that make it easy for multinationals to move production to low-wage countries and still sell their goods at home – and onto their traditional bogeymen: feminism, secularism and whatever else those dirty hippies are up to.
The single mother, especially the black or brown single mother, plays an outsized-role in this discourse. A compelling body of research suggests that economic insecurity leads to more single-parent “broken homes,” yet the Right clings tirelessly to the myth that the causal relationship is the other way around.
Writing favorably of Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, Kay Hymowitz – a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and author ofMarriage and Caste in America – set up a rather obvious straw-man when describing what she calls the “single-mother revolution.”
Defenders of the single-mother revolution often describe it as empowering for women, who can now free themselves from unhappy unions and live independent lives. That’s one way to look at it. Another is that it has been an economic catastrophe for those women. Poverty remains relatively rare among married couples with children; the U.S. Census puts only 8.8 percent of them in that category, up from 6.7 percent since the start of the Great Recession. But over 40 percent of single-mother families are poor, up from 37 percent before the downturn.
I have yet to encounter a “defender” of single-parent households who would suggest that they “empower” poorer women. For affluent women heading a household, the story is very different. The fact that she may not be stigmatized as she once was may indeed be empowering. But that’s because studies have found that they don’t lose economic status at all—they maintain their position.
But as Jean Hardisty, the author of Marriage as a Cure for Poverty: A Bogus Formula for Women,notes, it’s a different story for those without means. “Single mothers who are low-income… are constantly criticized by the general public,” she wrote, “and are held accountable for their single status rather than praised for finding self-fulfillment in motherhood. They are usually judged to be irresponsible, or simply unable to meet the child’s needs, including the supposed need for a father or father figure.”
The crux of the issue is that while it’s pretty self-evident that having one breadwinner instead of two (or one breadwinner and one parent to raise the kids) is an economic disadvantage — and any number of studies have found that single-parent households (especially single-mother families) are more likely to be poor — this “culture of poverty” narrative confuses correlation with causation.
And economic insecurity – and lack of education – also make it more likely that two-parent households will split, creating single moms and dads.