Friday, August 2, 2013

Single motherhood: imagining a war and forsaking the battle

Writers at the Daily Beast, Salon, and elsewhere are up in arms--figuratively, I think--over recent comments made by people like Bill O'Reilly, Don Lemon of CNN, and George Will supposedly "blaming" single mothers for society's ills.

Amanda Marcotte at the Daily Beast:
It appears that it’s open season on single mothers again. Granted, open season is called on single mothers a few times a year and can be spurred by anything from a politician trying to punt a question about gun control to polling data showing women are frequently breadwinners for their families, so this isn’t unusual. But this round is particularly aggressive, with George Will actually blaming single mothers for Detroit’s bankruptcy, Bill O’Reilly using the specter of single motherhood to distract from the Trayvon Martin case (even though George Zimmerman did not check Martin’s parentage before choosing to gun down the unarmed young man), and even CNN’s Don Lemon going on a moralizing scold that assumes that women become single mothers for no other reason than to thumb their nose at propriety.
Stacia Brown at Salon:
We saw it come up in the last presidential election debates, when Mitt Romney insinuated that single mothers were to blame for gun violence. President Obama often hints at it in his own “be a father to your child” speeches, which tend to assume that unmarried and low-income fathers are entirely uninvolved parents. And just this weekend, conservative columnist George Will pointed to single motherhood as a large part of what he called “Detroit’s cultural collapse.” Despite being the laziest explanation for the majority of society’s ills, single motherhood is not the bogeyman without which we’d all live morally spotless, fiscally responsible, racism-free, crime-reduced lives. And marital status is not an automatic or accurate indicator of father involvement.
Both writers, after mis-characterizing the remarks of others, engage in attempts to change the parameters of the discussion, to pull the focus away from out-of-wedlock births and the consequences of increases in their numbers. Marcotte laments the supposed lack of attention given to divorced single women with children, while Brown argues that there is more involvement from fathers (of children born out of wedlock) than most tend to assume. But both defenses are based on an attack not actually taking place.

Even within the framework of admonishments from people like Lemon and Obama to the black community on the rising number of single mothers, no one is actually arguing that single motherhood is the principal cause of various problems, that it is to blame. George Will, for instance, is pointing it out as a symptom of problems afflicting cities like Detroit. And indeed, this is hardly earth-shattering stuff, when it comes to the "black community" or any other community. It is a trend--single motherhood--that has accelerated in recent decades, particularly in the lower tiers of the socio-economic ladder.

Last year, I broached the subject a number of times, mostly in reference to Charles Murray's recent book Coming Apart. Pundits are quick to associate this trend with the black community alone, but as Murray demonstrated, the issue of race can be wholly subtracted from the equation without changing the story one iota. In general, marriage rates are down across the board in the country for the last fifty years, but they have disproportionately decreased in middle to low income communities. And a drop in industriousness follows that same pattern, as does an increase in crime and a decrease in religiosity (the last is particularly telling: people assume the poor are still more religious than the upper middle class and the wealthy, but this is no longer true).

Specifically with regard to single motherhood, the numbers are pretty scary:
Marriage rates have declined in both communites since 1960, but according to Murray, they have dropped far more precipitously among working class people, going from 84% in 1960 to a staggeringly low 48% in 2010, compared to 94% and 83%, respectively, among upper class people. Single motherhood has--predictably--followed a similar pattern:  
In 1960, just 2% of all white births were nonmarital. When we first started recording the education level of mothers in 1970, 6% of births to white women with no more than a high-school education—women, that is, with a Fishtown education—were out of wedlock. By 2008, 44% were nonmarital. Among the college-educated women of Belmont, less than 6% of all births were out of wedlock as of 2008, up from 1% in 1970.  
Murray's argument on the consequences of these changes--along with the other metrics he discusses--is simple: they persistently prevent working class people from moving up, from improving their lots in life, contrary to the spirit of the American Dream. The problems inherent in single parenting--for instance--mean fewer resources, more expenses, and less time with children. Similarly, the shared resources and commitments of a marriage contribute to a higher standard of living, and those lacking it are on not on an even playing field, all other things being equal.
And no matter how one feels about single motherhood, Murray's conclusions are empirically verifiable and simply follow from a common-sense perspective. A single-parent household is necessarily limited, with regard to time, resources, and opportunity, as compared to a two-parent household. Saying so does not constitute a "war" on anyone.

At the same time, there is a feedback loop at play here as well. While the rise in single motherhood can be attributed to a host of other factors--many of which are not simple at all--the consequences for a child raised in such a household, when that household is on the lower end of the income spectrum, are generally negative. Such children tend to have less economic mobility--meaning they have a more difficult time rising up out of poverty--than children raised in a two-parent household.

While the admonishments to stop having children out of wedlock may seem harsh, the fact of the matter is that breaking this kind of recursive system requires conscious choice and action (on the part of men, as well as women, to be fair). People like Marcotte and Brown, who are prone to a reflexive defense of single mothers, are not helping at all. They're focusing on the issue ideologically and emotionally, as opposed to objectively and practically.

And as I've noted before, there's a fascinating kind of double standard here, when it comes to the issue of marriage:
For decades, many on the left have been trumpeting the right people have to eschew the traditional paradigm of the family unit, arguing that living together and even having children outside of marriage was as valid a choice as any other and that this did not imperil society in the least. Indeed, single motherhood--ala Murphy Brown--was also presented as an equally valid choice. Now, these same people are arguing for the need to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. And the reverse is true for many on the right: they argued that the undermining of marriage, that validating these alternate choices, did have negative consequences for society (and in this they were and are absolutely correct), but now are arguing against extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, even though this could not help but increase marriage rates.
Think about it. Many on the Left want same-sex marriages (Marcotte is one of them, by the way) so same-sex couples have the same benefits available to them as other couples, but simultaneously want to insist that marriage isn't really that important in their defense of single motherhood.

This inability to look at single motherhood objectively, this need to fashion it into "just another lifestyle choice" is doing real damage, as it prevents attempts to address a significant problem impeding the potential progress of people born into difficult economic circumstances. And in this regard, the Left needs to actually pay a little more attention to their current leader, because Obama has the right of it:
But we also need families to raise our children. We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception. We need them to realize that what makes you a man is not the ability to have a child — it’s the courage to raise one. 
We need to help all the mothers out there who are raising these kids by themselves; the mothers who drop them off at school, go to work, pick up them up in the afternoon, work another shift, get dinner, make lunches, pay the bills, fix the house, and all the other things it takes both parents to do. So many of these women are doing a heroic job, but they need support. They need another parent. Their children need another parent. That’s what keeps their foundation strong. It’s what keeps the foundation of our country strong.
That's the real battle that needs to be fought. Pretending it doesn't exist for the sake of one's own ideology or ego is stupidity of the highest order.

Cheers, all.

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