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The Right's New Charade: Blaming Single Mothers for Inequality

Evidence shows that economic hardship is causing working-class Americans to abandon marriage, rather than the other way around.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Paul Matthew Photography


Republicans have been having an intense debate about how to solve inequality. On one side, there is conservative pundit Charles Murray, who thinks the solution is for the rich to tell the poor how gross they are and how moral rich people are. On the other side are those like conservative columnist and author Ross Douthat, who believes it would be better to be really mean to poor people because there’s just no stigma to poverty anymore. Because solving inequality will inevitably entail redistribution, the Right so far is content with throwing out some vague talking points, rather than a real agenda.

Now they have one: make life really hard for single mothers.

Earlier this year, Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee proposed a tax credit for families with young children and tax preferences for married couples. Now, Fla. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has proposed not only making life easier for married couples, but making life harder for single mothers. In the Wall Street Journal, Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for George W. Bush, argues that, “Marriage inequality is a substantial reason why income inequality exists. For children, the problem begins the day they are born, and no government can redistribute enough money to fix it.”

Even ignoring the fact that one really easy way to encourage marriage would be to open it to millions of LGBT Americans currently denied it, the focus on marriage is a charade.

Conservatives who want to argue that a decline in marriage is causing inequality argue that poor people tend to be unmarried and that areas with more two-parent households tend to have more economic opportunity. Both of these statements are true. But it’s important to tease out the causal link. Does not getting married harm your economic prospects or do bad economic times put an undue strain on relationships? Is there another factor driving both developments?

Two researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research — Melissa Schettini Kearney and Phillip B. Levine — find that single motherhood is largely driven by poverty and inequality, not the other way around. They state in a report: “The combination of being poor and living in a more unequal (and less mobile) location, like the United States, leads young women to choose early, non-marital childbearing at elevated rates, potentially because of their lower expectations of future economic success.”

A report by the British Rowntree Foundation had a similar finding: “Young people born into families in the higher socio-economic classes spend a long time in education and career training, putting off marriage and childbearing until they are established as successful adults.” Women in the slow track, in contrast, face “a disjointed pattern of unemployment, low-paid work and training schemes, rather than an ordered, upward career trajectory.” This is largely due to “truncated education.”

Fleischer and Rubio also argue that marriage is harming upward mobility. In the Atlantic, W. Bradford Wilcox has adopted this meme, citing the work of Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez. But his case leaves out something important. Hendren tells Salon that, “areas that had more two-parent households had higher rates of mobility, people born to married parents have lower rates of upward mobility in a place with fewer two-parent households. It’s something about the place that is driving the mobility in these places.”

So all Fleisher's pontificating about how all the “have-nots” need to do is, “marry and give birth, in that order” comes to naught. A two-parent family living in a community full of single-parent households will still end up poor. The case is far from closed, but there is strong evidence that economic hardship is causing poor and working-class Americans to abandon marriage, rather than the other way around.