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Single Moms

Via Brad Plumer, a Trish Wilson post noting that there's virtually no evidence for the familiar contention that growing up in a fatherless home, as such, producing seriously bad outcomes for children. What I will say, however, is this. Many of the things that do cause bad outcomes for children -- growing up poor, having stressed out parents, etc. -- do, in fact, tend to be caused by single parented-ness. Or, rather, they're caused by the intersection of single parented-ness with various features of the American social and economic system. Fortunately, many of the same sorts of changes to the economy that would be likely to mitigate this intersection are also policies that we have reason to believe would make it less likely for families to break up. Unfortunately, many people aren't interested in policies that envision any role for proactive government and prefer to simply castigate single parents instead.

March 26, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

I've often wondered if this is a case where we've watched both sides of the progressive/conservative debate gang up and screw people.

Case in point - mothers (or fathers, but it's still basically mothers) not staying home, but instead leaving the kids at day care and working. It's great for business to double the workforce, it probably means they can depress wages. On the flip side, both parents are now wage-earners, which was one of the whole points of women's liberation, to let women choose their own options when it came to careers or household.

Of course, since men are still to a large extent defined by their ability to earn income, we end up with a burgeoning day care industry, as well as a shadow economy in nannies and au pairs, and parents that are now basically working to earn enough money to support what they would do if they didn't work to earn the money.

I wonder if part of this mess is still just fallout from the industrial revolution. We tend to talk about the automation of manufacturing tasks, but I've rarely considered how much home labor has been eliminated.

Posted by: Mike Collins | Mar 26, 2005 6:46:05 PM

Well, that's true: If a woman is independently wealthy, or has a divorce settlement requiring the father to support her and the children, or otherwise has some means of support, she can do a pretty good job of raising the kids, (While daddy lives in a trailer park, and lives on instant ramen, 'cause two can't live as cheap as one if they live apart.) since she can afford to devote the necessary time to it. This shouldn't be too suprising, since in the traditional nuclear family, which worked pretty well, the father spent most of the day at work anyway.

What, though, do you mean by "the intersection of single parented-ness with various features of the American social and economic system"? The fact that, when people make lousy life choices, we don't necessarilly try to erase all the consequences? Should the government in effect "marry" any woman who wants to be a single parent, filling the role of absentee breadwinner?

Somehow I don't see removing one of the reasons women benefit from being married is going to strengthen marriage.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 26, 2005 7:01:12 PM

Whether from the religious right or from academia (Wilson, Whitehead), those up in arms about single-parenthood consistently make two mistakes:

1. No Control Group
There is no shortage of studies comparing the children of two parent vs one parent families. What seems to be missing is a comparison with children of families in "troubled marriages." That is, in all likelihood, many of the same pathologies associated with single parenthood kids(drug use, prison time, educational failure, out-of-wedlock births, etc,) may well be found at comparable levels in the homes of clashing couples that stay together. The "stay married at all costs" crowd may actually be doing these troubled couples - and their children - no favors.

2. Fallacy of Composition
Dan Quayle may have been "right" in the aggregate about single-motherhood, but not about Murphy Brown. What may be true in the aggregate is no guide to the life choices of any given individual. In the case of a "Murphy Brown", her economic resources, education and social network make her chances parenting success higher than most Americans, married or single.

In related news, other recent research shows that children raised in households with same-sex parents are virtually indistinguishable from those in traditional married households. For more on that, see:

"Not That There's Anything Wrong with It"

Posted by: Jon | Mar 26, 2005 7:08:01 PM

Why should anyone try to strengthen marriage?

Posted by: TJ | Mar 26, 2005 7:08:41 PM

I think most conservatives would be content if the government could just refrain from trying to weaken marriage.

But to answer your question, Marriage has been a feature of civilized society going back for a very long time indeed, and it's risky to assume that we can just dispense with it without consequences. It's standard conservative reasoning that we don't know why social institutions are the way they are, and that if we break something that turns out to have been important, putting it back together might prove difficult.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 26, 2005 7:41:26 PM

Marriage as we know it goes back... a very short time.

Posted by: TJ | Mar 26, 2005 8:08:49 PM

It always surprises me how the concept of reasonably preventing single parent families hardly ever comes up in these discussions. Change in how we do things is necessary no matter which case is true: (1) if single-parenthood is just as good as double-parenthood (leaving widowhood out of it), then there's no need to subsidize single parents, at least not any more than double parents. Else (2) if single-parenthood is not as good as double-parenthood, we should take educational or some other steps to minimize single-parenthood.

And even if single-parenthood is just as good for the kids (doubtful), that doesn't mean it's just as good for the parent. The time to try to prevent the pain out there is when it can be prevented, before bad marriage or unwanted birth or choosing single parenthood, rather than afterwards, when all one can do is pretend that cash rewarding illegitimacy or divorce sweeps away the problems.

Posted by: some guy | Mar 26, 2005 8:13:20 PM

Matt, I'm intrigued and I hope you say more about how the policies of the Democratic Party will both reduce single-parent households, and make the lives of the parents in those single-parent households that remain better.

Because from my perspective, it sounds too good to be true. (I'm assuming that you also have ways to avoid various moral hazard traps).

Posted by: john brothers | Mar 26, 2005 8:24:30 PM

Its the money. I grew up with just my mom, and 99% of all our problems were related to our poverty.

I would add, that the terms, "illigitimate" and "illigitimacy", are archaic, and not generally used anymore. Not to mention being in bad taste. Think about it: how would you like to be called "illegitimate"?

Posted by: eric | Mar 26, 2005 9:28:24 PM

If lack of a father is strongly associated with lower income, and higher income is associated with good health and good education, and there is little evidence that lack of a father is associated with bad outcomes for children, then no one is really looking for the evidence, most likely (or father's are much worse for kids than money is good for them).

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 26, 2005 10:05:25 PM

Brett Belmore:

Marriage has NOT been an institution for a very long time.
Marriage, as in a man taking a woman from her father and keeping her for breeding, with any other wives he may have, is ancient.
But what we think of as marriage, is new.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 26, 2005 10:08:18 PM

Brett Bellmore:

It's standard conservative reasoning that we don't know why social institutions are the way they are, and that if we break something that turns out to have been important, putting it back together might prove difficult.

So how has changing the ancient social institution polygamy working out so far? Or allowing women equal rights, for that matter? See, social progressives think that changing institutions that are clearly irrational (like denying gays the rights and responsiblities of marriage, when we are confident that the pairing up of as many people as possible in caring associations is beneficial to society) is possible with god's wrath descending on our heads.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 26, 2005 10:16:12 PM

Early childhood longitudinal study of the US department of Ed identified single parent as one of four or five risk factors. I don't know if it was the worst or least bad risk factor however. Kids with two or more risk factors - the others were poverty and english as second language related - came into kindergarten with a big achievement gap already. THey, on average, didn't know their letters and on average were unable to count to 20. Note that there were some very high achieving kids in the high risk pool. But, on average, they had a much tougher road ahead than kids from other families.

Posted by: benton | Mar 26, 2005 10:36:59 PM

epistemology,

The concept that women are equals in marraige is new. The concept of a faithful union between two people is not, unless you think the ancient Romans are some new-fangled craze.

Posted by: john brothers | Mar 27, 2005 8:23:15 AM

>Matt, I'm intrigued and I hope you say more about how the policies of the Democratic Party will both reduce single-parent households, and make the lives of the parents in those single-parent households that remain better.

I'll lay odds that he won't. Unlike many, Matt actually understands the words "unintended consequences", even if he can't find it in his heart to really believe them.

>Because from my perspective, it sounds too good to be true.

And you know what they say about that.

The Democratic party has some really atrocious recent history with trying to engineer social and demographic outcomes. The last thing we need is for the dems to go back to that particular now very much poisoned well.

I make a caveat here. It is possible that Matt is talking about an even more vigorous round of welfare reform, which actually did decrease the number of single-parent homes and increase their standard-of-living. If so, I heartily apologies for my snarkiness.

Posted by: dave | Mar 27, 2005 8:38:27 AM

john brothers:

The concept that women are equals in marraige is new. The concept of a faithful union between two people is not, unless you think the ancient Romans are some new-fangled craze.

The question was whether we should tamper with ancient institutions. And you agree it has been done repeatedly. Monogamy is not the original institution in the Abrahamic religions, and, as you say, treating marriage like a partnership between equals, as opposed to the man's taking possession of the woman, is new. Like morality, the institution of marriage has evolved; we're agreed. It continues to evolve in a rational way.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 27, 2005 8:42:19 AM

there's virtually no evidence for the familiar contention that growing up in a fatherless home, as such, producing seriously bad outcomes for children.

I think that's misstating the evidence. What the evidence says is *not* that one parent is as good as two, but that one happy parent is better than two parents who are fighting all the time. Two loving happy parents *are* better than one. That's not a moralistic statement at all, and has nothing to do with feminism, anti-feminism, or anything else.

Posted by: Adonais | Mar 27, 2005 9:19:15 AM

Re: The concept of a faithful union between two people is not, unless you think the ancient Romans are some new-fangled craze.

Fidelity on the man's part is fairly new. To be sure it existed as a hypothetical in the moral code (at least in Christiandom) but it was rarely insisted on. Up until the 20th century (when divorce became easy for women to obtain) philandering by husbands, whether with mistresses or prostitutes, was taken as a given.

Posted by: JonF | Mar 27, 2005 9:34:34 AM

The notion that one parent is as good as two strikes me as just as facially ludicrous as the notion that having one arm is just as good as having both arms. Sure, one can think of all sorts of qualifiers and hypotheticals ("But if your second arm was GANGRENOUS, or if it had a 50-POUND CANCEROUS TUMOR hanging from it, it would be better to be without that arm."). But still, it's as obvious as daylight that all else being equal, two arms are inestimable better than one. Not only is it useful for the stuff that the second arm can do by itself, having two arms makes it possible to work together, to lift things together, to play various musical instruments, to bench press, to do any number of things that require having both arms working as a team. Synergy.

You talk about having "stressed out" parents. Well, there is damn little that the government can do about the fact that a single parent with a sick child will be stressed out about having to either miss work or ignore the sick child, or about the fact that there's no second parent about to take the kids for a walk, play in the park, run to the grocery store, help one kid with his math homework while the baby has to be put to bed, or any of the INFINITE number of situations where a second parent comes in mighty handy.

Perhaps it's the youthful unmarried Matt talking here, because anyone who is familiar with family life would know how silly it is to suppose that the government can do anything whatsoever about all of the problems that arise. The most useful thing, of course, would be if each single parent had a live-in nanny to help out with the kids -- but gee, that is awfully like the role of the missing parent, who is supposedly unnecessary in the first place.

Anyway, a lot of the studies that Trish Wilson cites are of dubious relevance in proving her sweeping claim that "fatherlessness" statistics have all been "debunked." For example, one study is summarized thus: "Father absence does not significantly influence the level of well-being of either daughters or sons. Rather ... children's perceptions of their relationships with both parents have a more direct influence on their psychological well-being than does the physical presence or absence of their father."

Well, hold on: "Father absence" is not a factor that one can separate from "children's perceptions of their relationships"! That's nonsense. If the father is absent, ANY child is going to perceive the relationship differently.

Posted by: Jack V. | Mar 27, 2005 9:58:59 AM

I agree with Matt that problems single mother homes experience are "by the intersection of single parented-ness with various features of the American social and economic system." Single and divorced mothers lack social and economic support, which is why many of them are living in poverty. Also note tht MacLanahan and Booth found that "single mothers have higher poverty rates than other families and ...a substantial portion of their poverty is a consequence of marital disruption."

Posted by: Trish Wilson | Mar 27, 2005 10:49:15 AM

Father absence studies also have their own problems. The following is from Michael Lamb's "The Role of the Father." It's a good idea to look at the history of father absence research to get a better view of its flaws. Please note that this book was written in the 1970s, but it talks about the history of father absence research, which began during WWII.

---

Michael Lamb

Most researchers past and present looked at father absence in an overly simpistic fashion. Early father absence studies were weakened by researchers not taking the role of the father within the context of the family and society at large. They were also weakened by techniques used to determine the development of masculinity and femininity in children. A bad or inadequate father is worse than no father at all. The fathers' attitude towards his children and the way he interacts with them is important. Data indicated that "quality of the father-son relationship is a more important influence on the boy's masculine development than the amount of time the father spends at home."

Children are not irreparably harmed by the absence of their biological fathers, so fatherhood initiatives that seek to bring the bio-father into the family, regardless of the costs, are short-sighted. The absence of the father may be mellowed by the presence of other positive male role models: "Paternal absence or paternal inadequacy does not rule out the possible presence of other male models. A brother, uncle, grandfather, or male boarder may ensure that the boy has much interactions with a competent adult male. An important role can be played by male neighbors and teachers. Male teachers, particularly, may influence father-absent boys."

Early studies found that fathers away from their children for more than two years regarded them as "sissies." Lamb agreed with this assessment, stating that "boys were less assertively aggressive and independent in their peer relations than boys who had not been separated from their fathers. They were more often observed to be very submissive or to react with immature hostility, and they were actually more aggressive in doll play than boys who had not been separated from their fathers. However, the facts that the fathers were present in the home at the time of this study and tat the father-child relationships were stressful make it difficult to speculate about what influence father absence per se had on the children's personality development."

Lamb also found that "Studies of the effects of father absence have been said to show an element of sexism in that more attention has been given to effects on boys than on girls."

Father absence studies began to assess the effects on children of the absence of their fathers due to military service during World War II. Comparisons between war time father absence and father absence due to divorce or single parenthood are so far removed from each other that the differing conditions between these situations must be taken into account before using father absence research to describe (and especially to malign) divorced and single mother homes.

Most importantly, "well-socialized and successful adult males were likely to have had highly involved fathers and to have come from homes where their parents had compatible relationships. Some very extensive longitudinal data underscore the importance of both the father's behavior and the father-mother relationship in the personality adjustment of the child. In general, block (1971) found that males who had achieved a successful emotional and interpersonal adjustment in adulthood had both fathers and mothers who were highly involved and responsible in their upbringing. In contrast poorly adjusted males had fathers who were typically uninvolved in childrearing and mothers who tended to have a neurotic attachment."

Posted by: Trish Wilson | Mar 27, 2005 10:50:07 AM

By the way, Matt, thanks for the link. The problem I have with "fatherlessness" statistics is that they are frequently trotted out to condemn single and divorced mother homes. They blame single and divorced mothers for all sorts of social pathology, with the underlying idea that the mere presence of a father would supposedly solve those problems. It's not that simple.

Posted by: Trish Wilson | Mar 27, 2005 10:53:18 AM

The problem I have with "fatherlessness" statistics is that they are frequently trotted out to condemn single and divorced mother homes. They blame single and divorced mothers for all sorts of social pathology, with the underlying idea that the mere presence of a father would supposedly solve those problems.

Maybe I travel in different circles, but as far as I've seen, the "fatherlessness statistics" are trotted out mostly for the purpose of condemning the absent and irresponsible father who has abandoned his children or never taken responsibility for them in the first place. Ever hear the term "deadbeat dads"?

So the point of such moralizing is not: "Female single parents need to get a man to live with them." The point is, "Men need to be responsible adults who are committed to their wives, devoted to their children, and who are respectable role models." It's a straw man to pretend that this message is the same as arguing for "the mere presence of a father."

Posted by: Jack V. | Mar 27, 2005 11:40:09 AM

Jack, this is how the "fatherlessness" stats are quoted:

* 85% of all children that exhibit behavioral disorders come from fatherless homes.
* 90% of all homeless and runaway children are from fatherless homes.
* 71% of all high school dropouts come from fatherless homes.
* 75% of all adolescent patients in chemical abuse centers come from fatherless homes.
* 63% of youth suicides are from fatherless homes.
* 80% of rapists motivated with displaced anger come from fatherless homes.
* 70% of juveniles in state-operated institutions come from fatherless homes.
* 85% of all youths sitting in prisons grew up in a fatherless home.
* California has the nation's highest juvenile incarceration rate and the nation's highest juvenile unemployment rate.
* Juveniles have become the driving force behind the national increase in violent crime; the epidemic of youth violence and gangs is related to the breakdown of the two-parent family.
* 71% of teenage pregnancies are to children of single parents. Daughters of single parents are 2.1 times more likely to have children during their teenage years than are daughters from intact families. Daughters of single parents are 53% more likely to marry as teenagers, 164% more likely to have a premarital birth, and 92% more likely to dissolve their own marriages. All these intergenerational consequences of single motherhood increase the likelihood of chronic welfare dependency.
* In 1983, a study found that 60% of perpetrators of child abuse were women with sole custody. Shared parenting can significantly reduce the stress associated with sole custody, and reduce the isolation of children in abusive situations by allowing both parents' to monitor the children's health and welfare and to protect them.
* 18 million children live in single-parent homes. Nearly 75% of American children living in single-parent families will experience poverty before they turn 11. Only 20% in two-parent families will experience poverty.
* The feminization of poverty is linked to the feminization of custody, as well as linked to lower earnings for women. Greater opportunity for education and jobs through shared parenting can help break the cycle.
* Kidnapping: family abductions were 163,200 compared to non-family abductions of 200 to 300, attributed to the parents' disenchantment with the legal system.

"Fatherless" is code for "single mother home." The stats denigrate single and divorced mothers (they are lumped together in these stats) by insinuating that these mothers cause social pathology in their children because they don't have a father on the premises.

Posted by: Trish Wilson | Mar 27, 2005 12:35:07 PM

Jack V.

I'm not sure if all studies that show harm to kids from fatherlessness have been debunked; or whether they are honest and not tendentious subsets of the data.

But if ending slavery were shown to show an initial increase in poverty among blacks making the adjustment to freedom, so what?

And if women's claiming the full measure of equality, in marriage as well as politics, leads to some disruption in society, it is worth the transition costs. Have faith that freedom and equality at home will have as salutary effect, in the long run, as it does abroad.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 27, 2005 11:20:41 PM

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