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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 [1] — 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. [2] 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?

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104 Comments To "Childhood Poverty Is Society’s Fault? Really?"

#1 Comment By philosopher On November 13, 2012 @ 5:17 pm

(Putting this both here & on the new thread.)

I’m just getting back to my computer now, so Ihavent worked through the threads yet, but I’m very sorry to see that there’s been a big confusion here! When I wrote, ” I’m glad to see a bit of pushback against some of the weird misconceptions of mainstream liberal views here, like Church Lady at 9:29pm. There’s been a lot of discussion in the aftermath of the election about how conservatives are in an especially bad version of an epistemic bubble.” — I meant to be citing Church Lady as an example of the _pushback_, and NOT AT ALL as an example of the _misconceptions_. I was totally, 100% _endorsing_ that 9:29pm post of hers! I can see that my phrasing there could have been ambiguous, and I’m sorry that it wasn’t clearer in that sentence. But, really, it was meant to be fully approving of what she was saying!! I think if you go back and read the rest of that comment with that in mind, you’ll see that we weren’t disagreeing.

#2 Comment By Church Lady On November 13, 2012 @ 6:51 pm

Like I’m going to turn in the parents of kids I teach.

And why not? What are you, some kind of commie Democrat softie who thinks that people should be treated compassionately?

#3 Comment By Church Lady On November 13, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

I meant to be citing Church Lady as an example of the _pushback_, and NOT AT ALL as an example of the _misconceptions_. I was totally, 100% _endorsing_ that 9:29pm post of hers!

Ah, how easily a misturned phrase can turn everything backwards! I guess it didn’t help that other liberals on the thread were trashing me for that post.

Thanks for the clarification. For my part, I withdraw my objections entirely, and thank you for the praise.

#4 Comment By E Anderson On November 24, 2012 @ 2:38 pm

I come from a stable, very normal upper-middle class family in the midwest where all but one of of my six siblings went to college, got jobs, had children, etc. When my younger brother was in high school, his girlfriend from the wrong side of the tracks became pregnant. She was raised by a single, drug-addicted mother and I believe was sexually abused. She was clearly headed for a life not unlike her other family members. Her relationship with my brother did not last.

Despite this, my mother took this girl under her wing, housed her, fed her and helped take care of my nephew while this teenager grew up. It wasn’t easy and my mom put up with a lot of shenanigans. For the first time the girl was able to see what normal family life looks like: proper nutrition, sit down family meals, yard work, boardgames, bedtimes, homework, holidays, etc.

Ten years later, my nephew is thriving and she is married with another child. She credits my mom with saving her life and finds it very difficult to relate to her natural family who haven’t changed all that much. The cycle was broken, but it took a tremendous amount of love, patience and financial resources. Is she perfect? No but I have no doubt my nephew will graduate high school, go to college and be a productive member of society.

It’s a huge uphill battle to try and convince these teenagers not to have sex, but relatively easy to provide access to contraception and avoid pregnancy. But, I’m not sure they want to avoid it. I am convinced that these young women know that single-parenthood is difficult, but subconsciously want babies because they think a child will provide them with the love they never received growing up.

To me that is the crux of the problem. I know it’s corny, but how do you provide love to all of these individuals? I think this would be a good role for the church and a much better use of their time versus fighting over abortion and SSM.