Blog No. 47. Single Parents, Parenting and Poverty.

In recent years, some conservatives have expended time, effort and money in arguing (without benefit of any credible evidence) that recognizing same sex marriage would somehow undermine traditional marriage. The end of that era may be in sight with the action of the Supreme Court in refusing to hear appeals from decisions by three federal circuits (having jurisdiction over 11 states) that struck down bans on same sex marriage. In the meantime, however, such conservatives have generally paid too little heed to the fact that traditional marriage has indeed been undermined, but by factors having nothing at all to do with same sex marriage.  

Some analysts have observed that, while marriage is thriving in better educated and higher income groups, it has become all but obsolete among the lower classes. Prominent among such analysts is Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage. Writing recently in The New York Times, Ms. Sawhill minced no words:

Marriage is disappearing. More than 40 percent of new mothers are unmarried. Many young adults drift into parenthood unintentionally. They may be cohabiting at the time of their child’s birth, but about half of these couples will have split up by the time their child is 5 years old. College-educated young adults are still marrying before having children and planning their families more intentionally. The rest of America, about two-thirds of the population, is not.

We’ve been worrying about these trends for years, and wondering: Can marriage be restored as the standard way to raise children? As much as we might welcome a revival, I doubt that it will happen.

In Blog No, 26, “Poverty and Marriage,” we reviewed the overwhelming evidence of the problems faced by children born outside a marital relationship. (Out of “wedlock” manages to sound both quaint and intimidating, so we will try to avoid the term.) Children of single mothers represent a major portion of those served by the SNAP (Food Stamp) program: 49% of all SNAP participants are children (age 18 or younger), with almost two-thirds of SNAP children living in single-parent households.

Ms. Sawhill pointed out the existence of a philosophical divide between liberals and conservatives. Liberals, she wrote “argue that we should accept the new reality and support single parents by providing more child care, health care, food and cash assistance.” Such efforts, she thought would be helpful, but “hugely expensive” and “inconsistent with a public ethic that values self-sufficiency over dependency.” Conservatives, on the other hand, “believe that the problem is cultural and that restoration of marriage is not only possible but the best route to reducing poverty and inequality.” Still, she observed, conservatives “have never explained how to restore marriage. Everything they have tried — from marriage-education programs to changes in the way marriage is treated in tax and benefit programs — has had little or no effect.”

Sawhill’s own proposed solution was twofold. Asserting that 60 percent of pregnancies outside marriage are unplanned, she presented data as to the unreliability of the most common forms of birth control (condoms and birth control pills). She then called for increased availability of more reliable methods, i.e., long-acting reversible contraceptives (“LARCs”), specifically IUDs and implants. Second, she urged the adoption of “a new ethic of responsible parenthood” in lieu of marriage. According to Sawhill, the new ethic would mean “not having a child before you and your partner really want one and have thought about how you will care for that child.” Although the cost may be significant, with IUDs costing up to $1,000, Sawhill cited an analysis indicating that “for every dollar invested in birth control, taxpayers save roughly five dollars on Medicaid-supported births and on social welfare payments for the mother and child.” Arguments to pay now for a benefit of future savings are often difficult to sell, but an October 2 article in RH Reality Check was headlined “Even Conservative States Are Increasing Access to IUDs for Medicaid Recipients.” Apart from cost, however, there may be other limitations on the use of LARCs.

For one, IUDs in addition to being expensive, may require several visits to a physician. In addition, religious objections to IUDs were raised by the plaintiffs in the Hobby Lobby case who claimed, (incorrectly we believe), that they were “abortifacients.” Sawhill criticized the decision in the Hobby Lobby as an effort “to curtail access to the most effective forms of birth control.” It is worth noting that, while one may agree or disagree with the Hobby Lobby decision, it is nothing of the sort. On the contrary, Justice Alito took pains to point out that, under the accommodation ordered by the Court, “the plaintiffs’ female employees would continue to receive contraceptive coverage without cost sharing for all FDA-approved contraceptives.” Nevertheless, religious objections to IUDs may continue to have some impact. (The Hobby Lobby decision is discussed in Blog No. 42. dated July 24, 2014.)

A prominent academic, Kathryn Edin, has presented a view of the underlying problems that differs in some respects from Sawhill’s. In Blog 26, we quoted a 2010 Heritage Foundation paper that summarized some of Edin’s findings, and the summary is worth repeating here:

In popular perception, out-of-wedlock childbearing occurs as a result of accidental pregnancies among teenage girls who lack access to or knowledge about birth control. This perception is completely inaccurate.

  • In reality, unwed births rarely involve teenage girls, are almost never caused by a lack of access to birth control, and generally are not the result of purely accidental pregnancies.
  • As noted previously, only 8 percent of non-marital births occur to girls under 18. Non-marital births and pregnancies are phenomena that mainly involve young adult men and women.
  • Research on lower-income women who have become pregnant outside of marriage (either as minors or adults) reveals that virtually none of these out-of-wedlock pregnancies occurred because of a lack of knowledge about and access to birth control.
  • Out-of-wedlock births are generally not the result of purely accidental pregnancies. In fact, most women who become pregnant and give birth out of wedlock strongly desire children. Their pregnancies are partially intended or at least not seriously avoided.

Thus, Edin and Sawhill appear to differ in their assessments of how many pregnancies outside marriage are planned and how many unplanned. To the extent that there is a conflict, however, it may not be essential to resolve it. Edin would surely support greater availability of the most effective methods of contraception, and Sawhill would presumably concede that even if “only” 40 percent of pregnancies outside marriage are intentional, that is enough to represent a major problem. In fact, although Sawhill did not focus on intentional pregnancies, that is where her proposed new ethic would appear to be most relevant. The question is what likelihood it has of being accepted and how effective it would be.

In a lengthy interview in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, Edin described her research in detail and discussed the psychology of unwed, low-income mothers. It is not that such women do not value marriage, she explained; on the contrary, they valued it highly and hold high standards for men they would be willing to marry. They are, however, confronted with a lack of such men:

This, Edin found, was why low-income women were willing to decouple childbearing from marriage: They believed if they waited until everything was perfect, they might never have children. And children, says Edin, are “the thing in life you can’t live without.” As one subject explained, “I don’t wanna have a big trail of divorce, you know. I’d rather say, ‘Yes, I had my kids out of wedlock’ than say, ‘I married this idiot.’ It’s like a pridething.”

Sawhill made a similar observation:

Scholars studying low-income or working-class communities have discovered that the women in these communities no longer think it is realistic to depend on the men in their lives. They have seen or experienced too much divorce, infidelity, substance abuse and other bad behavior to trust or fully rely on their partners.

What chance does Sawhill’s new ethic have of dealing with that problem? While she pointed out that conservative efforts to promote marriage have not been highly successful, it is not clear that her “new ethic” would be more so. She argues that social norms can be changed, citing smoking and the decline in teenage pregnancy, but that argument is equally available to those who would seek to rescue marriage.

Sawhill argues that the new ethic is more consistent with the current social norm, but tends to brush over the fact that if there is a shortage of marriageable men, there is also a likely shortage of men who would even take seriously the kind of compact that the proposed ethic envisions. In addition, while some men might accept their responsibilities at the birth of a child, their commitment may fade or disappear over time. That would be consistent with Edin’s findings with respect to past behavior of unmarried fathers:

Only a small percentage of the men, black or white, said the pregnancy was the result of an accident, and even fewer challenged the paternity. When the babies were born, most of the men reported a desire to be a big part of their lives. Among black men, 9 in 10 reported being deeply involved with their children under the age of two, meaning they had routine, in-person contact with their kids several times a month. But that involvement faded with time. Only a third of black fathers and a quarter of white fathers were still intensively involved with kids older than 10. Among the reasons, Edin identifies unstable relationships with the mothers—the average couple had been together only about six months before conceiving a child. The men also frequently struggled with substance abuse and stints in prison.

One may question whether the proposed Sawhill ethic–lacking the legal, moral and cultural bonds of marriage–would be sufficient to alter that pattern of behavior. Marriage is far from a panacea–as divorce rates and other evidence amply demonstrate–but it provides a reinforcement of commitment that may hold couples together in difficult times. Nevertheless, the Sawhill ethic may be worth suggesting as, in effect, a “Plan B” to marriage.

Admittedly, it is an uphill battle either to restore marriage as a social norm applicable to all income levels, or to fashion the new ethic. Either attempt must contend with the strong instinct of many women, and some men, to have children sooner rather than later. Possibly, however, it is an instinct that may not be wholly uncontrollable. Before the sexual revolution of the sixties, the instinct to procreate was largely held in check by the stigma attached to having children outside marriage. As Sawhill, Edin and many others have observed, that stigma has largely disappeared, and we would not propose an attempt to revive it. To do so would not only be impractical, but would seem mean-spirited, making life even more difficult for single mothers, many of whom are already strained to the breaking point or beyond. We would suggest instead attempting to replace the stigma by educating men and women as to what is very much in their own self-interest.

Single parenthood imposes obvious hardships not only on children of a single parent, but on the parent, most often a woman, raising them. Blog No. 26 discussed Jason DeParle’s lengthy analysis in The New York Times in 2012 (“Two Classes in America, Separated by ‘I do’”) which included not only statistics, but presented a vivid portrait of the differences in the lives of two mothers, one married and one unmarried, working together for the same employer. More recently, an article in Think Progress summarized a report by the Working Poor Families Project: “Working single mothers are disproportionately likely to be poor, and their ranks are growing.” In addition, the article cited another report which found that “a record number of families rely on women’s earnings, nearly two-thirds of whom are single moms.”

In the case of single fathers who are not directly involved in raising their children, the impact of parenthood may be less dramatic, but can be significant. Efforts to enforce child support obligations have increased over time and continue to be strengthened, although the effectiveness of such laws varies from state to state. We renew the suggestion made in Blog 26 that sex education curricula in public schools “include detailed and focused information on the economic consequences of bearing children outside of marriage–and the impact of those consequences on both the mother and father and their children.

Some observers appear to assume that single women having children is an immutable fact and that emphasis should therefore be placed on improving their circumstances. For example, just above the essay by Isabel Sawhill in The New York Times, was one by Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, “The Way to Beat Poverty.” Kristof and WuDunn advocated the investment of resources in home visits to “at-risk mothers” not only during pregnancy to improve pre-natal care, but after the birth of the child; (“These nurse visits continue until the child turns 2, with the nurse encouraging the mom to speak to the child constantly, to read to the child, to show affection.”)   Kristof and WuDunn’s proposal was not limited to single mothers but they would clearly be major beneficiaries of it. At the same time, birth control and avoiding (further) unwanted pregnancies were given only glancing mention.

In a September 4 essay published by the Brookings Institution, Kimberly Howard and Richard Reeves argue that promoting marriage is a lost cause and that emphasis therefore should be placed on increasing both the income and the parenting skills of single parents. (See, “The Marriage Effect: Money or Parenting?”)

In 2013, the writers had published a paper for Brookings entitled “The Parenting Gap” emphasizing the importance of parenting skills and developing where needed. The writers attempted to gauge the impact of programs to improve parenting skills and focused on one particular program:

For the purposes of this paper, we have chosen to model the effects of the Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program, one of seven programs identified by HHS as an evidence-based model. The goal of the HIPPY program, offered when children are age 3 to 5, is to effectively train parents to be their child’s first teacher. Families enrolled in HIPPY receive biweekly home visits from a paraprofessional for 30 weeks out of the year, along with biweekly group meetings. Families are given books and toys, along with instruction on how to use the materials for teaching.

The impact on the children enrolled in the HIPPY program was modest but measurable, and in the view of the writers, meaningful. We would give at least qualified support, subject to further evaluation, to the kinds of interventions urged by Kristof and WuDunn and Howard and Reeves. Successful interventions need not necessarily be part of a massive program designed and administered by the federal government. It may be more feasible politically, and sounder policy, to encourage states to experiment with different approaches and let the federal government serve primarily to monitor and assess and act as a clearinghouse for information.

Finally, we are not ready to give up on attempting to promote marriage and seeking to discourage childbearing outside of marriage (or the kind of committed relationship envisioned by Sawhill). We join with conservatives who believe it is neither necessary nor desirable to accept as a given an ever expanding universe of children born without such supports. On the other hand, it is something that cannot be addressed simply by extolling the virtues of marriage. On the contrary, it is a problem as complex as it is large. For example, it may be that the dearth of marriageable men requires radically improved programs of education and job training and a reform of the criminal justice system that removes too many men from the community and returns them with a diminished capacity to serve as employees or husbands. Those are, even on their own, daunting challenges, but they are worth the effort.

2 thoughts on “Blog No. 47. Single Parents, Parenting and Poverty.

  • As you say the problem is very complex but what I do not see discussed is the issue of financial responsibility for ones children born either within marriage or outside of marriage. In many western societies the state provides many services to assist in the financial burdens of child rearing. If that is not an alternative here, which would require a shift in the relationship between the individual and the state, then why do we not hear of making fathers financially responsible , at least in part , for the results of their choices? As long as individuals bear no consequences for their actions then I see no real way to address the issue. In almost all cases the mother and to some extent the state winds up paying the bill and the child suffers the consequences.

    • I agree that fathers should be held responsible and, moreover, should be made well aware in advance that they will be, As stated in the Blog:
      ” Efforts to enforce child support obligations have increased over time and continue to be strengthened, although the effectiveness of such laws varies from state to state. We renew the suggestion made in Blog 26 that sex education curricula in public schools “include detailed and focused information on the economic consequences of bearing children outside of marriage–and the impact of those consequences on both the mother and father and their children.”

      The issue was also discussed more fully in Blog No. 26:
      “Another approach to reducing the birth of children out of wedlock may be to strengthen child support laws. Beginning with the enactment of the Child Support Enforcement Program in 1975, Congress has enacted a number of laws seeking to require unmarried fathers to take financial responsibility for their children. The enforcement of support obligations, however, remains with the states and the effectiveness of enforcement varies from state to state. Studies have indicated that effective enforcement of child support laws has an impact on the behavior of men that may significantly reduce the number of children borne by unmarried women. (See, for example, Robert Plotnick et al., “The Impact of Child Support Enforcement Policy on Nonmarital Childbearing,” April, 2005.)

      One problem, of course. is that many fathers have little to contribute financially, even under compulsion.
      Still, I agree that we should do whatever we can to enforce fathers’responsibility.

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