Conservatives want to have their cake and eat it too: Decry the rise in nonmarital births, but make life even harder for women facing single motherhood.
Ever wonder what the “war on women” is really about? An article in the New York Times, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’: For Richer Marriage, for Poorer, Single Motherhood,” provides some clues. The article documents the growing class divide in family form. College graduates like Chris and Kevin Faulkner, who were profiled in the article, postpone starting families, produce marriages with lower divorce rates than a generation ago, and reap the rewards in terms of greater time and resources to invest in children. In the meantime, women like Jessica Schairer who do not graduate from college, also profiled in the article, are increasingly raising children on their own. These women often give up on the men in their lives and struggle to balance the demands of low-paying jobs with the attention their children need.
The article presents a compelling portrait of the causes and the effects, but not of the partisan divide over the potential solutions. That divide can be summed up by a struggle over a simple question: are women like the single mother, Jessica Schairer, the victims of our economy or the problem? Those who see them as the problem are setting forth proposals to make their lives (and their children’s lives) worse. Those of us who see Jessica Schairer as a victim of increasing economic inequality recognize that supporting her ability to care for her children is critical to the strength of the country’s next generation. The political war for the future of Jessica Schairer is under way.
The change in family structure is a consequence of growing economic inequality that further increases inequality in the next generation of children. The most startling change is the increase in non-marital births. In 1990, just 10 percent of white women with some college education had a birth outside of marriage; today the figure is 30 percent, compared to 8 percent of whites with a college degree and 40 percent for the country as a whole. Meanwhile, 86 percent of black high school dropouts have children outside of marriage. The likelihood that a child will be raised in a two-parent family has become a marker of class.
The Times article documents the consequences of this change, as it describes the limited ability of single parents to pay for sports participation, attend school events, stay on top of homework, and provide adequate role models. Harvard’s Robert Putnam adds that the growing class gap in childrearing affects everything from the time parents spend playing patty-cake with their pre-schoolers to the likelihood that a high school senior will be the captain of a sports team.
In considering the causes of class divergence, the Times articles documents a negative spiral. It observes that economic woes speed marital decline “as women see fewer marriageable men.” Women do not commit to men without steady employment, and a shortage of “good men” encourages the employed to play the field. A long list of academic studies demonstrates that when marriageable women outnumber the men, everyone’s norms change and marriage rates decline. For single mom Jessica Schairer, as for many other women today, there was no point to marrying the father of her three children. Instead, for her the issue is “why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned so little, berated her often and did no parenting.” On the other hand, marriage also encourages men to shape up. Kevin Faulkner, the married father in the story, explained that he returned to college because he wanted to get married. Other studies show that not only has the premium for college graduates increased over the last generation, but the job stability of less educated men has fallen more than for other parts of the population and male layoffs often break up relationships and discourage marriage.