February 16, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
Here’s Kay Hymowitz in the New York Times commenting, in her usual cogent way, about poverty, single-motherhood and children without fathers (New York Times, 2/8/14). Mostly, she gets it right; her point of view is one everyone needs to read and understand, particularly the readership of the Times.
Hymowitz finds a growing left-right consensus on the problem that single-motherhood poses to U.S. society, but also finds a sharp divergence on what to do about it.
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.
This is not a new thing. The American Left has for decades been claiming that the way to address the problem of children without a male parent is to pay women to have more of them, or at the very least make it easier on those who do. It’s no coincidence that radical feminists — the ones who’ve been telling us since the 1970s that husbands and fathers were uniquely dangerous to wives and children — are also urging the federal government to more completely subsidize childcare. After all, what better way could there be to cut fathers out of children’s lives altogether than to offer single mothers cheap or even free daycare.
Of course, with budgets stretched to the limit and the national debt surging upward, there’s little political support for massive new programs one of whose results would be to incentivize still greater non-marital childbearing. But even if it were the 90s and the feds had a surplus to work with, encouraging single-motherhood would still be a bad idea, as Hymowitz informs her readers.
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. 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. 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.
One important truth Hymowitz doesn’t mention is that the radical feminist narrative of the brutal, oppressive husband, though spoken mostly by affluent women, seems only to have been heard by the poor. So the rate of non-marital childbearing among college-educated women of all races is about 8%, i.e. roughly what it was in the early 1960s. That means everyone else is having babies out of wedlock at shockingly high rates.
When that happens, as it does in births to 72% of African-American mothers, the next shoe to drop for the child is the marginalization of his/her father. Not only do the child’s parents tend to split up early, but Mom tends to add a series of boyfriends after that, resulting in Dad being pushed further and further from his child. And of course, boyfriends don’t make good stand-ins for fathers. It’s there that Hymowitz fails to grasp the true dynamics of father absence.
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.
No, fathers tend less to “fade out” of their kids’ lives than to be shoved out by Mom. Hymowitz cites the excellent Kathryn Edin, but neglects to read her work. In her paper, based on data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being study, Edin correctly identifies “Parenting as a Package Deal.” That “package” consists of the mother and the child. Regardless of who else may come or go, the package remains intact. It’s not Dad and his new girlfriend that lose track of his child, it’s Mom and her new boyfriend who let him know he’s no longer welcome.
Like maternal gatekeeping, paternity fraud, adoption without the father’s knowledge or consent, false allegations in child custody cases, violating visitation orders, maternal child kidnapping, etc., “parenting as a package deal” is all about mothers’ control over fathers’ relationships with their kids.
Hymowitz understands that feminists are wrong in their criticism of fathers, both married and unmarried. For decades, an important subset of feminism has been far more anti-male than pro-female, and it’s never more obvious than in their rhetoric about fathers and families. As social science has made clear for decades, married mothers with children are usually the safest, most financially secure and happiest women in society. So are their kids. She’s right to criticize the Left for promoting government incentives to women who abandon that safety, security and contentment. She’s also right to criticize the Right for believing that encouraging marriage will solve the problem of fatherless kids.
But in the process, she reveals yet another blind spot.
Most surprising, given the likely feminist sympathies of liberal advocates for single mothers, is their fatalism toward men. While it’s a safe bet that most in this camp wouldn’t hesitate to scold married “bastards on the couch” for not pulling their weight at home, they seem more than willing to write off unmarried fathers. Not only does this merely accept the personal loss suffered by millions of children living without their fathers; it also virtually guarantees a permanent gender gap — single mothers are inevitably competing in the labor market with one hand tied behind their backs — and entrenched inequality.
Yes, but so are custodial single fathers, and yet somehow they manage reasonably well in the workplace. Single mothers with custody of their kids earn on average about $23,000, but their male counterparts earn over 50% more, about $36,000. Both have “one hand tied behind their backs,” but somehow that’s less of an impediment for fathers than mothers. And child support doesn’t explain it. A far smaller percentage (28%) of those custodial fathers receive any child support at all from their children’s mothers than do custodial mothers from fathers (56%). And the dads pay the mothers more ($3,862 vs. $3,015) on average.
As in so many other aspects of the economy, if women (with or without children) want to earn as much as men, they need to work more and at jobs that pay as well as those typically held by men. Yes, single mothers will still be hamstrung by the need to both work for pay and care for their kids, but no more than are single fathers.
One of the best pieces of news to come along in years is that teenage girls seem to be getting the message that pregnancy and childbirth at that age isn’t a good idea. Thus the rate of teen pregnancy has come down sharply since the late 90s.
And we know why. It’s not because they’re having sex less often, but because they’re using contraception more and the methods they’re using are better. As the Guttmacher Institute recently revealed, the increasing availability of female contraception that doesn’t require remembering to take a pill every day seems to be what’s doing the trick. Improved intra-uterine devices and injectable contraceptives that last for months not only make remembering to take a pill unnecessary but “forgetting” to, when the girl hears the siren song of motherhood, impossible.
Now if their elders would only get the same idea, we’d really be getting somewhere. How might they do that? My thought is that we should start teaching both girls and boys at an early age that producing a child before you’re ready is bad for everyone. By “ready,” I mean emotionally mature enough, financially capable to care for a child properly and, most important, in a committed relationship in which both partners want a child. If kids grew up with that message, maybe we’d be on the road to solving one of our most destructive social problems — single-mother childbearing and the absence of fathers from their children’s lives.
Hymowitz seems to agree.
Researchers believe the decline (in teen pregnancy) 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.
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.
Then there’s the issue of an effective, easy and cheap male contraceptive. My guess is that RISUG isn’t the answer because it requires minor surgery and costs a significant amount. Of course it’s a 10-year solution to a man’s contraception problem, but the initial outlay of cash may place RISUG outside the reach of many men. Beyond that, there are promising pills and injections for men that may be long-lasting, relatively cheap and free of side-effects. We’re still years from any of that being readily available on the U.S. market, but when they are, at last, men will truly have something real to say about whether they sire children or not.
Until then, we’ll have to keep plugging away, trying to convince policy-makers that single motherhood is bad for everyone, and the solution to it is not more taxpayer money making it easier and more worry free.
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