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Why Conservatives Wrongly Blame Single Moms for the Disastrous Failures of the Right-Wing Economic Model

"Broken homes" are irrelevant when there are so few well-paid jobs with decent benefits.

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Here, we also need to acknowledge the role of public- and corporate policies that make it harder for women without the means to hire help to juggle work and family life. American workplaces are uniquely inflexible. According to Harvard's Project on Global Working Families, the United States is one of only four countries out of 173 studied that doesn't mandate some form of paid maternal leave. The others – Liberia, Papua New Guinea and Swaziland – are all developing states. When faced with an illness, or a sick child, 145 countries offer some form of paid leave, and the United States is among the stingiest. The authors note that we offer “only unpaid leave for serious illnesses through the [Family Medical Leave Act], which does not cover all workers.” This is, in part, a result of conservative complaints that mandated leave to deal with family emergencies is an unacceptable infringement on the “free market” – an argument made by the same people who would have us believe that poor single moms earned their poverty by raising kids alone.

The crux of the issue is that while it’s pretty self-evident that having one breadwinner instead of two (or one breadwinner and one parent to raise the kids) is an economic disadvantage -- and any number of studies have found that single-parent households (especially single-mother families) are more likely to be poor -- this “culture of poverty” narrative confuses correlation with causation.

Hardisty, writing specifically about poor people of color, notes that those living in poverty face tangible barriers to setting up and maintaining a stable, two-parent home:

Race accounts for several barriers to marriage in low-income communities of color. The disparate incarceration of men of color, job discrimination, and police harassment are three barriers that are race-specific. Other barriers are universally present for low-income people: low-quality and unsafe housing, a decrepit and underfunded educational system; joblessness; poor health care; and flat-funded day care . . . are some of the challenges faced by low-income women and men. These burdens make it difficult to set up stable, economically viable households, and also put stresses on couples that do marry.

In 1998, the Fragile Families Study looked at 3,700 low-income unmarried couples in 20 U.S. cities. The authors found that nine in 10 of the couples living together wanted to tie the knot, but only 15 percent had actually done so by the end of the one-year study period.

Yet here’s a key finding: for every dollar a man’s hourly wages increased, the odds that he’d get hitched by the end of the year rose by 5 percent. Men earning more than $25,000 during the year had twice the marriage rates of those making less than $25,000. Writing up the findings for the  Nation, Sharon Lerner noted that poverty “also seems to make people feel less entitled to marry.”

As one father in the survey put it, marriage means “not living from check to check.” Thus, since he was still scraping bottom, he wasn’t ready for it. “There’s an identity associated with marriage that they don’t feel they can achieve,” [Princeton sociology professor Sara] McLanahan says of her interviewees. (Ironically, romantic ideas about weddings—the limos, cakes and gowns of bridal magazines—seem to stand in the way of marriage in this context. Many in the study said they were holding off until they could afford a big wedding bash.)

And economic insecurity – and lack of education – also make it more likely that two-parent households will split, creating single moms and dads. In a review of the literature about the primary causes of divorce, Pennsylvania State University scholars Paul Amato and Denise Previti write that “studies indicate that education and income facilitate marital success. Education promotes more effective communication between couples, thus helping them to resolve differences. In contrast, the stress generated by economic hardship increases disagreements over finances, makes spouses irritable, and decreases expressions of emotional support.” Partly for these reasons, they write, socio-economic status “is inversely associated with the risk of divorce.”

 
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