Family Structure is an Economic Challenge, But Not So Fast…

The Bride Ben Hoffman Abramowitz (American, born Brooklyn, New York 1917)

The Bride
Ben Hoffman Abramowitz
(American, born Brooklyn, New York 1917)

Back in the Victorian era, households did not resemble our own. The wealthy aristocrats presided over households which were like small villages, full of live-in servants and workers. The poor, of course, could not afford valets and ladies maids, but farm households, too, were multi-generational communities engaged in a mutual endeavor.

Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College is the author of “The Centrist Manifesto,” which calls for a new political party “of the middle.”  I appreciate his attempt to take a  non-partisan approach to the question of the impact of family structure on the economy in his recent article on U.S. News and World Report.  But I find it has a problem endemic to most articles on the topic– a narrow focus on marriage as the only family structure that could support children’s well-being.

Wheelan’s article references the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study. The study shows that “the gap in economic outcomes between single-parent households and those headed by married couples is large and growing.”  Although Wheelan admits “causality is tricky here” ultimately he puts the blame on “the breakdown of the traditional family.” (To make this point, he rather unfortunately relies on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report titled, “The Negro Family: The Case for Action.”)

In doing so, he fails to recognize the role a culture and policies that consider “traditional marriage” the only legitimate support structure for children might play in creating economic gaps between married and unmarried mothers.

As I have pointed out here before, a new study by Robert Moffit on government spending on social programs show that there has been a marked tendency over the past decades for voters to demand programs that separate the “undeserving” from the “deserving.”   And politicians use language that makes it clear that our social programs will give preference to the “Middle Class” deserving. American voters consider married people to be more deserving of assistance than unmarried people.

The idea here seems to be that women have made an informed choice, in a vaccuum, that they prefer welfare to marriage, as if those were the only two options. If those are seen as the only two choices for women, then it follows you would do all you could to encourage women to get married and stay married rather than to feed at the public trough.

According to the Moffit study I referenced above, aid to the poorest single-parent families in this country dropped 35 percent between 1983 and 2004. During that period, reforms substantially cut assistance to those with incomes below 50 percent of the poverty line, while expanding it to those between 50 percent and 100 percent of the poverty line and to those between 100 percent and 200 percent of the poverty line. As a result, these days “a family of four earning $11,925 a year likely [gets] less aid than a same-sized family earning $47,700.”

So what happens when you increasingly give priority to the married over the unmarried and shift economic aid from the second group to the first?

To quote Wheelan “the gap in economic outcomes between single-parent households and those headed by married couples is large and growing.”

You can perform a test as to whether it is marriage itself or economic policies that create the wealth gap by looking to other countries. It turns out that family composition in the US is not that much different from family compositions in Northern Europe, but they don’t have anywhere near the rates of child poverty we have. In case you were wondering, More than one in five American children fall below a relative poverty line, which UNICEF defines as living in a household that earns less than half of the national median. The United States ranks 34th of the 35 countries surveyed, above only Romania and below virtually all of Europe plus Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

Our attempts up to this point to encourage “traditional marriage,” therefore, do not seem to be solving the problem.

“Having a child out of wedlock is like dropping out of high school,” Wheelan wrote. This is true for women, but not for men. Men’s standard of living is actually improved by remaining unmarried. After a divorce, a man’s standard of living generally rises while the woman’s falls. So therefore these policies do not encourage marriage in general, they penalize and stigmatize female non-marriage while failing to address male non-marriage.

The question of the pay gap between men and women is a more urgent one for single women, and helps to explain differences in voting patterns between single and married women. If a man and a woman are married, and their money is pooled, it is not as important which one is making more. When a woman is reliant on her income alone she is already at an economic disadvantage as compared to an unmarried man even before you take into account the fact that she is most likely going to be the primary care giver of her children. (For more on the pay gap see my post Is Masculinity Unnatural.) So addressing the pay gap could be one technique for keeping children out of poverty.

The only real reference to fathers in the Wheelan article is a line that suggests African-American men are present but their relationships are “not durable.” “Family structure,” Wheelan says, “exacerbates racial gaps.” There are a lot of inferences here about cause and effect.

First off, notice that the U.S. News and World Report story is illustrated with a picture of a Hispanic mother and her child, not a white woman and her child. This re-enforces the idea that poverty is primarily a minority problem. In fact, the majority of the poor are white. Studies have shown that the more poverty is equated with minorities the more the problem is assumed to belong to “others” and the less inclined people feel to support “them.”  In fact, 40 percent of Americans will fall beneath the poverty line at some point in their lives, but most do not stay there long. Although the number of people beneath the poverty line and on public assistance remains fairly stable, the individuals who make up those groups are not. One person falls into poverty and another rises out of it.  Contrary to the popular image, the average poor single mother is white and suburban and she remains in poverty for a few years at the most.

When speaking about the durability of African-American families, it seems like a monumental oversight not to mention the structure of the criminal justice system and how disproportionately it impacts the lives of Black families. From 1980 to 2008, the number of people incarcerated in America quadrupled-from roughly 500,000 to 2.3 million people. Today, the US is 5% of the World population and has 25% of world prisoners. African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population. African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population.  If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime.

The causes for this are surely many, and it is an entire discussion itself. But without this information, there is the impression that Black men are mysteriously uninterested in being part of a family. Being married to a prisoner is probably not a huge improvement over being single when it comes to economic well-being and so encouraging marriage, in itself, is not likely to solve the problem of child poverty in this population.

When we talk about single mothers, we tend to use the language of personal choice responsibility. A single mother is assumed to have made a personal choice to be promiscuous, irresponsible or lazy as opposed to being unmarried because, say, her spouse died, (the military, incidentally, is disproportionately minority and working class),  she is gay and excluded from marriage in her state, her spouse was abusive, or her spouse went to prison, or she wanted to marry but was jilted or otherwise romantically unlucky.

Salon, today, ran an article arguing for a change in our tax and welfare priorities. That may be part of the solution, and is worth discussing, but it is not the point I am making here. Nor am I arguing against “traditional marriage.”  It is a great system that has worked well for many people, but it should not be the only tool in our belt.

In other cultures you might see great involvement of members of the extended family or the larger community in the care and well-being of children. We actively discourage this. We talk about adult children living in the same household as the older generation as if one of the parties was selfishly dependent on the other. (Rather than mutually supporting, as we talk about marriage.) We would consider platonic friends with children who lived together and shared household duties to be a bit strange, perhaps immature, and a bit suspect.

We can’t help children by stigmatizing the mothers they depend on. It exacerbates the very problems we are trying to solve. Focusing solely on marriage reduces the sphere of responsibility for children to two individuals. We limit discussion of how different support systems could operate and how our social institutions could be re-designed to better accommodate diverse types of families. Expanding the sphere of responsibility for families could create a firmer social foundation.

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