By KAY S. HYMOWITZ
The last few weeks have brought an unusual convergence of voices from both the center and the left about a topic that is typically part of conservative rhetorical territory: poverty and single-parent families. Just as some conservatives have started talking seriously about rising inequality and stagnant incomes, some liberals have finally begun to admit that our stubbornly high rates of poverty and social and economic immobility are closely entwined with the rise of single motherhood.
But that’s where agreement ends. Consistent with its belief in self-sufficiency, the right wants to see more married-couple families. For the left, widespread single motherhood is a fact of modern life that has to be met with vigorously expanded government support. Liberals point out, correctly, that poverty rates for single-parent households are lower in most other advanced economies, where the welfare state is more generous.
That argument ignores a troubling truth: Single-parent families are not the same in the United States as elsewhere. Simply put, unmarried parents here are more likely to enter into parenthood in ways guaranteed to create turmoil in their children’s lives.
Fifty years ago, American liberals noticed that high welfare payments and low public criticism of unmarried parental couples weren't immediately destroying Stockholm, so they figured it would make perfect sense in Milwaukee.
The typical American single mother is younger than her counterpart in other developed nations. She is also more likely to live in a community where single motherhood is the norm rather than an alternative life choice.
The sociologist Kathryn Edin has shown that unlike their more educated peers, these younger, low-income women tend to stop using contraception several weeks or months after starting a sexual relationship. The pregnancy — not lasting affection and mutual decision-making — that often follows is the impetus for announcing that they are a couple.
Guys, do not trust your girlfriend to take care of the contraception. She has her own agenda.
I wonder what percentage of these "unplanned" pregnancies have to do with women getting tired of dieting to look hot. Okay, I've got a guy interested in me, kind of, but now I'm hungry all the time. If I go off my diet, he'll probably dump me for that skinny skank Amber. But nobody can blame me for eating for two if I'm pregnant. So I'll kill two birds with one stone: I'll permanently reel him in by having him be my babydaddy and I can get off this diet. So stuff happens, you know? The Miracle of Life.
Unsurprisingly, by the time the thrill of sleepless nights and colicky days has worn off, two relative strangers who have drifted into becoming parents together notice they’re just not that into each other. Hence, the high breakup rates among low-income couples: Only a third of unmarried parents are still together by the time their children reach age 5.
Also complicating low-income single parenthood in America is what the experts call “multipartner fertility.” Both divorced and never-married Americans are more likely to repartner and start “second families” than Europeans, but the trend is far more common among unmarried parents. According to data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study at Princeton and Columbia Universities, over 60 percent of low-income babies will have at least one half sibling when they are born; by the time they are 5, the proportion will have climbed to over 70 percent.
Obviously, this data should be broken out by race. My guess is, however, that working class whites are slowly drifting toward black norms as criticizing anything associated by disparate impact logic with blackness becomes increasingly unspeakable.
All of this would be of merely passing interest if it weren’t for the evidence that this kind of domestic churn is really bad news for kids. The more “transitions” experienced by a child — the arrival of a stepparent, a parental boyfriend or girlfriend, or a step- or half sibling — the more children are likely to have either emotional or academic problems, or both. (My own research indicates that boys, especially, suffer from these transitions.)
Part of the problem is that a nonresident father tends to fade out of his children’s lives if there’s a new man in his ex’s house or if he has children with a new partner. For logistical, emotional and financial reasons, his loyalty to his previous children slackens once he has a child with a new girlfriend or wife.
New girlfriends/wives show remarkably little female solidarity toward the idea of their man turning over a big chunk of his paycheck to ex-girlfriends/wives.
Nor is it likely, from the overlooked child’s point of view, that a mother’s new boyfriend or husband can fill the gap. There’s substantial research showing that stepfathers are sometimes worse than none at all.
These realities help explain the meager results of government marriage promotion programs. It doesn’t make much sense to encourage, much less pressure, a couple with no shared history, interests or deep affection to marry. At any rate, given the prevalence of multipartner fertility it’s not clear, as one scholar asked in a paper, “who should marry whom.”
But those same realities raise serious doubts about the accept-and-prop-up response to single-parent families. Increasing government largess could actually incentivize, or at least enable, parental choices that everyone admits are damaging to kids.
Universal pre-K, for example, offers a sort of taxpayer-subsidized nap time for welfare moms to rest up so they can hit the clubs harder in the evening and create more little net tax consumers / Democratic voters.
So where does that leave us, policy-wise? Liberal critics of marriage promotion are probably correct that there are only limited steps government can take to change the way low-income couples meet and mate. But that doesn’t mean the status quo is the way things have to be. Not so long ago, the rise of teenage motherhood seemed unstoppable. Instead, over the past two decades adolescent births have declined to record lows.
And abortion rates have dropped as well.
Researchers believe the decline was caused by a combination of better contraceptive use and delayed sexual activity. Both were grounded in a growing consensus — including by the policy makers, educators, the public and teenagers themselves — that having a baby when you are 16 is just a really bad idea.
As I've been saying for years, you can see just in reading government statistical reports that the government is out to get teen pregnancy (even if the teen is a married 19-year-old high school graduate) but is completely neutral on post-teen out-of-wedlock births.
It’s not impossible that Americans could reach a similarly robust consensus about having children outside of a committed relationship, which in the United States, at least, tends to mean marriage. But despite the growing list of center-left writers willing to admit that single motherhood is complicit in our high levels of poverty and inequality, that consensus still seems a long way off.
Single motherhood generates Democratic votes, now and in the next generation. See "Life of Julia."
Kay S. Hymowitz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal, is the author of “Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.”