Childhood Poverty Is Society’s Fault? Really?
Writing at The Atlantic’s site, Karen Kornbluh notes that about fifty percent of single-parent families are living in poverty — and she knows whose fault that is: Ozzie and Harriet’s:
Nine years later, the nation no longer clings quite so tightly to the ideal of the 1950s family, but policies and practices lag behind. … Our lack of quality childcare and after-school programs puts these kids at risk and endangers the nation’s future in a knowledge economy. Our lack of support for flexible work arrangements and Social Security credits for caregivers puts these parents at risk. However, there is good news: health care reform will be an enormous help to these families. They are raising our future citizens and building our productive assets at great cost to themselves and with little help from the rest of us.
Look, I agree that we ought to have more flexibility in our labor laws to make it easier for things like parents taking sick leave to care for their kids. That the government is responsible for “quality child care and afterschool programs”? Well, call me skeptical.
What’s so interesting, and frustrating, about this piece is that it doesn’t seem to have occurred to this writer that single parenthood is something to be avoided. It’s just one of those choices that people make, and public policy should accommodate it. The rhetoric about “raising our future citizens and building our productive assets” is airy-fairy and moralistic, and conceals the true nature of the crisis. The idea seems to be that if we shifted public policy a bit, we would solve, or go a long way toward solving, the problem of single parenthood and childhood poverty. To a certain kind of liberal, there’s no problem that a new government program can’t solve.
It’s just not so. Kay Hymowitz wrote a few years back about marriage and caste in America. Excerpt:
Yes, 33 percent of children are born to single mothers; in 2004, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, that amounted to 1.5 million children, the highest number ever. But the vast majority of those children are going home from the maternity wards to low-rent apartments. Yes, experts predict that about 40 to 50 percent of marriages will break up. But most of those divorces will involve women who have always shopped at Wal-Mart. “[T]he rise in single-parent families is concentrated among blacks and among the less educated,” summarize Ellwood and Jencks. “It hardly occurred at all among women with a college degree.”
When Americans began their family revolution four decades ago, they didn’t tend to talk very much about its effect on children. That oversight now haunts the country, as it becomes increasingly clear that the Marriage Gap results in a yawning social divide. If you want to discuss why childhood poverty numbers have remained stubbornly high through the years that the nation was aggressively trying to lower them, begin with the Marriage Gap. Thirty-six percent of female-headed families are below the poverty line.
The new states Kornbluh reports indicate that that number is now almost 50 percent. More Hymowitz:
For children born at the bottom of the income scale, the situation is the reverse. They face a decrease in what McLanahan terms “resources”: their mothers are younger, less stable, less educated, and, of course, have less money. Adding to their woes, those children aren’t getting much (or any) financial support and time from their fathers. Surprisingly, McLanahan finds that in Europe, too—where welfare supports for “lone parents,” as they are known in Britain, are much higher than in the United States—single mothers are still more likely to be poor and less educated. [Emphasis mine — RD] As in the United States, so in Europe and, no doubt, the rest of the world: children in single-parent families are getting less of just about everything that we know helps to lead to successful adulthood.
These single moms are by and large not raising “our productive assets.” There are obviously exceptions — we all know them — but statistics indicate that these women are raising kids who will be just like them, or, if they are males, like the fathers who abandoned their children. Here, from Hymowitz, is the important point:
There is something fundamentally different about low-income single mothers and their educated married sisters. But a key part of that difference is that educated women still believe in marriage as an institution for raising children. What is missing in all the ocean of research related to the Marriage Gap is any recognition that this assumption is itself an invaluable piece of cultural and psychological capital—and not just because it makes it more likely that children will grow up with a dad in the house. As society’s bulwark social institution, traditional marriage—that is, childbearing within marriage—orders social life in ways that we only dimly understand.
For one thing, women who grow up in a marriage-before-children culture organize their lives around a meaningful and beneficial life script. Traditional marriage gives young people a map of life that takes them step by step from childhood to adolescence to college or other work training—which might well include postgraduate education—to the workplace, to marriage, and only then to childbearing. A marriage orientation also requires a young woman to consider the question of what man will become her husband and the father of her children as a major, if not the major, decision of her life. In other words, a marriage orientation demands that a woman keep her eye on the future, that she go through life with deliberation, and that she use self-discipline—especially when it comes to sex: bourgeois women still consider premature pregnancy a disaster. In short, a marriage orientation—not just marriage itself—is part and parcel of her bourgeois ambition.
When Americans announced that marriage before childbearing was optional, low-income women didn’t merely lose a steadfast partner, a second income, or a trusted babysitter, as the strength-in-numbers theory would have it. They lost a traditional arrangement that reinforced precisely the qualities that they-and their men; let’s not forget the men!—needed for upward mobility, qualities all the more important in a tough new knowledge economy.
Want to tweak public policy to give single parents a break? Fine. But don’t tell yourselves that this is going to make a significant difference in the future of kids born into these circumstances, or left there because of divorce. There really are deleterious consequences to the welfare of children — including the adults these kids will grow up to be — from our sexually permissive culture. The cost of out-of-wedlock childbearing cannot be significantly ameliorated with public policy adjustments. Should it be?