a single mother

Marry Your Baby Daddy Or You Will Die Poor (And Alone)

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After reading this New York Times story about single motherhood leading to income inequality, the headline might not even be a joke. The lengthy article goes through all the data and finds that parenting alone is seriously tough business for people who are not uber-wealthy. The story begins by comparing two Michigan women who are similar in many respects except that one is married to the father of her children. The other is not. The one set of children are in swimming, karate, baseball and Boy Scouts. the other can’t afford to have her kids in those activities, either in terms of money or time:

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans … are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women … who left college without finishing her degree, are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

Now, I know you don’t have to be a genius to figure out that marriage is a key factor in personal and family success, but it is still striking how different life is for those who marry and those who don’t. More than 40 percent of births now occur outside marriage, way up from 17 percent three decades ago. For college-educated women, fewer than 10 percent of births are outside marriage. For women with high school diplomas or less, nearly 60 percent of their births are out of wedlock.

And motherhood outside of marriage is increasing now among lower middle class white women, such as those who have some college but no degree. And that’s really bad news for the children:

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.

“The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,” Ms. McLanahan said. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.”

She said, “I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.”

The article spends a lot of time talking about how many women who are raising children alone grew up at a time or in places when social norms were drastically different. As in, every parent they knew was married. The single mother profiled in the story grew up thoroughly middle class and we’re told she “knew no one rich, no one poor and no one raising children outside of marriage.” When she got pregnant, she and her boyfriend decided to wait until they could afford a big reception and huge wedding dress before getting married. (Further proof that the wedding-industrial complex is bad for America.)

But now the country is dealing with serious income inequalities. And it looks like marriage plays a role. One Harvard sociologist estimates that the growth in single parenthood is responsible for as much as 25 percent of the widening income gap. The effects on children even extend into their adulthood. The absence of a father in the house makes it harder for children to climb the economic ladder.

Obviously, again, many children of single mothers do just fine. But the collapse of marriage culture in this country is hurting people at the lower end of the economy.

(Photo: Sean Bolt/Shutterstock)