Gender

Marriage Isn't the Economic Panacea—So Stop Shaming Unmarried Moms

Instead of trotting out the tired Trojan horse of marriage as the cure-all for economic woes, let's focus on better policies for structural problems and stop attacking single mothers.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Jaimie Duplass

This piece originally appeared on The Nation Institute website, and is reprinted here with their permission.

This month brought the latest hand-wringing over high-profile single parents, this time advanced by Keli Goff at The Root. Goff had a bone to pick with Evelyn Lozada, the 37-year-old unmarried star of "Basketball Wives" who has announced that she’s pregnant. The problem with this arrangement, Goff lamented, is that Lozada’s pride in her pregnancy sends a message that out-of-wedlock births are just fine. She went on to argue that single parents — poor or wealthy and regardless of any other life circumstance — simply can’t do as well at raising healthy, upwardly mobile children as a two-parent home.

Pundits and researchers vigorously debated this topic in 2013. The goal for most — whether affiliated with conservative outfits such as the American Enterprise Institute or centrist ones such as Third Way — seemed to be to persuade the public that maintaining the stigma around unmarried parenting is a path toward combating low educational attainment, joblessness and other social ills related to poverty.

I heard plenty of arguments along the lines of Goff’s this year, but there is one message I wish had broken through more often: correlation is not causation. Do children who grow up in homes with married parents tend to do better in terms of schooling, jobs and financial security when compared to their peers from single parent homes? Yes. Has anyone proven that this is because of marriage itself as opposed to other factors — such as the higher likelihood that people who are established in well-paying careers will opt for and stay in a marriage and so already have a step up as parents? Has anyone looked at other stable, two-adult arrangements — a mother and grandmother who live together and raise a child from birth until she goes off to college, for example — to see how that child fares compared to a peer from a married, “intact” family? These explorations would deepen a conversation that’s been superficial and moralizing for too long.

Stalled Conversations

In the spirit of hoping for better research into and higher quality debates about family relationships in the new year, let me review the top three examples of how the conversation stalled in 2013.

1. Women are primary breadwinners in four out of 10 U.S. households and some people can’t handle it.

In May, Pew released data that shows a seismic shift in American families in the past 50 years: Women are the main providers in 40 percent of homes with children, up from just 11 percent in 1960. The majority of these households — just over 60 percent — are headed by single mothers.

These facts drove some observers to distraction. At Fox News, Lou Dobbs, Juan Williams and Erick Erickson spoke of “watching society dissolve around us,” men’s natural “dominant role” and the hurt children suffer when a woman keeps a family’s finances afloat.

To be fair, the all-male lineup of commentators was perhaps expressing what some of those surveyed by Pew might say about these changes. About half said children are better off with the mother at home. But two-thirds said more women working for pay offers an economic benefit to families, and 80 percent reject the idea that women should return to their so-called traditional roles. In short, Americans are confused, and TV pundits aren’t helping them. Too many commentators are arguing that we try to return to a mythical golden age, and too few are advocating real world policies that give families good options while women are at work, such as universal childcare and paid parental leave.

2. Whitlock outlines “Hurricane Illegitimacy.”

In November, ESPN.com columnist Jason Whitlock offered his perspective on the sideline antics of 25-year-old Dallas Cowboy Dez Bryant. Whitlock used Bryant's emotional outbursts during a game as an illustration of what he called “Hurricane Illegitimacy,” the superstorm of children from unmarried parents that has allegedly led to social dysfunction and lawlessness over the past 50 years. For Whitlock, the solution is simple:

If this country wants to really invest in young people, we must first invest in restoring the traditional family unit. As long as 68 percent of black women who have children are unwed, there are no cures for the social maladies preventing black progress.

Whitlock mentions that Bryant’s mother was 14 and his father in his 40s at the time of his birth. But for Whitlock, it’s the absence of marriage and not statutory rape that’s at the heart of the athlete’s alleged problems. He does gesture at the role the war on drugs has played in wreaking havoc on many black families. But his solution is that more of us get married, rather than that more of us challenge poverty and mass incarceration head on while leaving room for multiple ways of creating family.

3. The same-sex marriage debate creates wolves in sheep’s clothes.

In 2010, David Blankenhorn, director of the Institute for American Values — a New York-based think tank devoted to civil society issues — testified against same-sex marriage during California’s Proposition 8 trial. But this year he had a change of heart. In January, he and a group of 75 self-described leaders from all over the ideological spectrum published a manifesto called “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage” that abandoned the fight on same-sex marriage in favor of the larger fight for marriage. This move came just months after Blankenhorn wrote an op-ed in the New York Times announcing that he no longer opposed same-sex marriage and would shift his focus to “help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.”

In an article announcing the paper’s release, Blankenhorn acknowledges that donors and board members of IAV who were attached to an anti-same-sex marriage agenda have fled his organization. One former employee explained the challenge this orientation creates: “[Some financing] will be conservative, but the pro-marriage liberals have to step forward, and maybe make it more 50-50.”

It will be telling to see whether the pro-marriage liberals who offer up their names and dollars advocate just as aggressively for policies that support all families. Blankenhorn is branding his effort as “centrist.” But what could be more conservative than arguing that U.S. families should return to a vision of normalcy that no longer fits? And how does such a movement intend to appeal to young people? Among Americans 30 and younger, 40 percent view the growing number of single mothers as a big problem, compared with nearly three-quarters of adults ages 50 and older, according to Pew. Family formation is a hang-up of baby boomers, but not an issue most millennials lose sleep over.

New Year's Resolution

Here’s a resolution for the new year: If we want to explore how marriage should be an option for everyone because poor and black people should be able to dream of romance and support from an intimate partner like their wealthy, white counterparts, then by all means let’s have that conversation. If we want to talk about the shame and confusion some fatherless children feel when that father’s absence is total and unexplained, let’s go there. Let’s honestly investigate desire and pain and their connection to family structure.

But it’s time to stop buying into the argument that we need more marriage to stabilize the economy and eradicate poverty and otherwise stand in the void created by deep structural problems in our society combined with the absence of good policy.

Let 2014 be the year that Americans stop hearing that the push for marriage is for the children, when it’s actually for onlookers’ own comfort and a way to avoid the necessary work of creating new solutions.

Dani McClain is a writer living in Oakland, CA. Her coverage of reproductive health and sexuality is supported by the Nation Institute.