The Right Wing

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 — findthat 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 theAtlantic, 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.

Even given this, while it’s worth helping families, we should also help single mothers and fathers, since they are in need of even more help. Instead, Rubio’s plan will actually exacerbate inequality by hurting single parents. If economic hardship is driving high divorce rates and teenage pregnancy, then creating more economic hardship is only going to make the problems worse.

Take my friend Sally (not her real name). She had a child with a man she thought was a stable partner. But Sally broke up with him when he became physically and emotionally abusive. She has a good job, but it’s still hard to make ends meet with kids: she has to pay for childcare, she’s limited in the jobs she can pursue because of her mortgage, and she isn’t getting much help.

Lee and Rubio will do nothing to help her. In fact, Rubio’s plan will make her life even worse, because the Earned Income Tax Credit will be even more skewed against her. Rubio’s plan actually gives Sally, and other women like her two options: court poverty or marry the man who is abusing you.

The plans fail even if you accept the premises of the Right. According to the conservative narrative,inequality has grown worse because America has increasingly divided into two groups. One group, the hard-working Americans, get a college education, get married and then have kids who go to college, get married and have kids. The other group is the lazy, feckless poor, who don’t go to college, have children out of wedlock and don’t get married. The data don’t support this narrative, but even if you accept it, the Republican proposals will only increase inequality. If the rich are married and the poor aren’t, then policies that help married couples and hurt unmarried workers will only worsen inequality.

A better way to fight inequality would be to support policies that help married and unmarried Americans. NY Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s “opportunity agenda” would do exactly that. She advocates a broad swath of proposals including raising the minimum wage, creating a family leave system, funding universal pre-K, establishing a tax credit for childcare expenses and passing an equal pay law. These proposals will ameliorate inequality and will do far more to strengthen the family than a modest tax credit. Other liberal proposals include instituting a universal basic income, expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and higher taxes on the wealthy.

“Encouraging marriage” is a disingenuous dodge. A small tax credit isn’t going to fix the fact that if middle-class incomes had risen equitably over the past three decades we’d all be making $19,000 more each year.

Here’s the dirty little secret. The Republican Party isn’t seriously worried about inequality or poverty or mobility or wage stagnation because addressing any of these issues will lead to the government intervening in markets. That’s okay if it’s to help rich people, but not to help poor people. As Gore Vidal noted, they want “socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor.”

The Right would also like to stay away from inequality because the main genesis of the cavernous gap between the rich and poor is policies that they championed (deregulation, free trade, union-busting, halting the rise of the minimum wage). They want to destroy the few remaining New Deal programs that are hindering inequality from becoming worse. Talking about marriage keeps the institutions that are driving inequality intact and serves as a red herring that obfuscates the causes of inequality.

Sean McElwee is a research associate at Demos. Follow him on [email protected]

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