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July 25th, 2012 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
To its credit, Slate has published a calm, fact-based and fair response to Katie Roiphe’s recent tantrum about single-mother child rearing (Slate, 7/20/12).  It’s by University of Virginia sociologist, W. Bradford Wilcox who, over the years has proved himself to be one of the reliable voices of reason when it comes to the sociology of the family.

That puts him in dramatic contrast to Roiphe whose piece in Slate bordered on the unhinged.  I read a lot of bad journalism, but Roiphe’s article attacking a New York Times article contrasting single vs. married motherhood, was exceptional.  Her description of the NYT article as “disguised as news” was simply false.  Her claim that the writer judged the single mother he described to be a “slut” and “slatternly” found no support in the article he wrote.  Her focus on the two women the Times piece described while utterly ignoring the social science on single motherhood’s affects on kids suggested to me that Roiphe really doesn’t care about the facts or their effects on children.  Her article seemed more like a child’s fit of anger than anything that belonged in a major online publication.

So Wilcox comes as a breath of fresh air.

But Hetherington, who like Roiphe embraces changing family structures, also was honest enough to admit that divorce tends to double a child’s risk of a serious negative outcome. Specifically, she found that “twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems.” Other research suggests that the children of never-married single parents tend to do somewhat worse than children of divorced single parents.

Take two contemporary social problems: teenage pregnancy and the incarceration of young males. Research by Sara McLanahan at Princeton University suggests that boys are significantly more likely to end up in jail or prison by the time they turn 30 if they are raised by a single mother. Specifically, McLanahan and a colleague found that boys raised in a single-parent household were more than twice as likely to be incarcerated, compared with boys raised in an intact, married home, even after controlling for differences in parental income, education, race, and ethnicity. Research on young men suggests they are less likely to engage in delinquent or illegal behavior when they have the affection, attention, and monitoring of their own mother and father.

But daughters depend on dads as well. One study by Bruce Ellis of the University of Arizona found that about one-third of girls whose fathers left the home before they turned 6 ended up pregnant as teenagers, compared with just 5 percent of girls whose fathers were there throughout their childhood. This dramatic divide was narrowed a bit when Ellis controlled for parents’ socioeconomic background—but only by a few percentage points. The research on this topic suggests that girls raised by single mothers are less likely to be supervised, more likely to engage in early sex, and to end up pregnant compared with girls raised by their own married parents.

Those are some of the emotional/psychological effects of single motherhood on children, but they certainly don’t stop there.  A greater likelihood of abusing drugs or alcohol, involvement in crime, lower employment and other detriments also tend to characterize the children of single mothers.  And those children are not only poorer as children, they’re less upwardly mobile as adults than are their peers of intact families.

It’s true that poorer families are more likely to be headed by single mothers. But even factoring out class shows a clear difference. Research by the Economic Mobility Project at Pew suggests that children from intact families are also more likely to rise up the income ladder if they were raised in a low-income family, and less likely to fall into poverty if they were raised in a wealthy family. For instance, according to Pew’s analysis, 54 percent of today’s young adults who grew up in an intact two-parent home in the top-third of household income have remained in the top-third as adults, compared with just 37 percent of today’s young adults who grew up in a wealthy (top-third) but divorced family.

Why is this? Single mothers, even from wealthier families, have less time. They are less likely to be able to monitor their kids. They do not have a partner who can relieve them when they are tired or frustrated or angry with their kids. This isn’t just a question of taking kids to the array of pampered extracurricular activities that many affluent, two-parent families turn to; it’s about the ways in which two sets of hands, ears, and eyes generally make parenting easier.

Well, that’s the nice way to put it, and of course what Wilcox said is true.  But it may not be the whole truth.  Research out of the University of Chicago late last year sketched a far darker picture of single-mother upbringing of boys.  Researcher Marianne Bertrand attempted to explain the gender gap in the non-cognitive behavior of children up to the eighth grade.  In short, she tried to understand why boys tend to “act out” and get in trouble in school more than do girls.

Family structure is an important correlate of boys’ behavioral deficit.  Boys that are raised outside of a traditional family (with two biological parents present) fare especially poorly…

The gender gaps in externalizing behavior in fifth grade and suspension in grade eight is smallest in intact families.  All other family structures appear detrimental to boys…

The most robust difference across family structures appears to be with respect to emotional distance:  single mothers appear to be especially distant from their sons.

That is, one of the major problems with single motherhood is its uniquely detrimental effects on boys.  Why have boys begun to lag in school?  One reason appears to be their upbringing by single mothers.

Bertrand studied the long term data gathered on some 20,000 children.  She reported that her finding that single mothers invest less emotionally in their sons than in their daughters is corroborated by other data such as the American Time Use Survey of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Child Development Supplement of the panel study of Income Dynamics.

Like the NYT article, Wilcox points out that better educated Americans long ago figured out that raising children without a father is a bad idea.

This recognition that it is easier to parent, and that kids are more likely to thrive, in a two-parent home might  be one reason why the divorce bug seems to be on the wane in progressive enclaves like Park Slope and Seattle, according to the New York Times. After the turmoil of the divorce revolution of the 1970s and early 1980s, a marriage mindset has reasserted itself among college-educated Americans…  Today, college-educated Americans are divorcing less, steering clear of nonmarital childbearing, and enjoying relatively high-quality marriages. By contrast, as I recently pointed out in When Marriage Disappears, Americans without college degrees are divorcing at high rates, witnessing dramatic increases in nonmarital childbearing, and seeing their marital quality deteriorate.

What was particularly shameful about Roiphe’s article was that she’s an affluent, well-educated person instructing poorer and less well-educated women to have children outside of any relationship that can support them and give them a father.  For the well-to-do to encourage those who might not know better to engage in behavior that’s likely to keep them and their children mired in or near poverty, with little hope of escaping, is beneath contempt.  I pointed this out in my response to Roiphe.  Wilcox does too, albeit more tactfully than I did.

The retreat from marriage in America, a retreat that Roiphe seems keen to defend, has led to “diverging destinies” for children from less-educated and college-educated homes. Children from poor and working-class homes are now doubly disadvantaged by their parents’ economic meager resources and by the fact that their parents often break up. By contrast, children from more-educated and affluent homes are doubly advantaged by their parents’ substantial economic resources and by the fact that their parents usually get and stay married.

Surely a progressive like Roiphe should be concerned about all this, rather than dismissing the recent New York Times news story on the marriage divide in America as a “puritanical and alarmist rumination on the decline of the American family.” Since when is it puritanical and alarmist in progressive circles to raise the red flag about a major driver of social and economic inequality?

That’s a good question, but one I don’t expect to see Roiphe answering any time soon.

Thanks to Glenn for the heads-up.

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