Monday, July 16, 2012

Why children have unequal chances

For going on two decades there has been a steady stream of articles blaming nonmarital birth for the inequality among children...and all other social problems.  But there seem to be even more recently.  Then comes a front page story in this week's Sunday New York Times, describing the lives of two sets of children whose moms work together.  Jessica has three children, one with Asperger syndrome, and no husband.  She earns $24,500 as an assistant director of a child care center.  Her boss, Chris, has two children and a husband.  Chris and her husband earn together three times what Jessica earns.  So of course their children have more enrichment activities.  And of course they have more available parental time.

From this, and the many cited researchers, the article concludes, as its subtitle put it, "Marriage, for Richer; Single Motherhood, for Poorer."  "Two Classes," reads the headline, "Divided by "I Do."  Of course the reader will draw the conclusion that marriage before children -- and staying married -- is the solution to the unequal chances children face.

I cannot agree, and there's another way to tell the story of Chris's and Jessica's children, some of which is buried in the piece itself.  Take one study the article reports.  Scott Winship studied 2400 young adults and found that 58% of those in the lowest third of income who as teenagers lived with two parents moved up on their income level, while 44% of those with only one parent did.  Also,  15% of those who started out in the top third income level fell to the bottom third, while 27% of teenagers without both parents did.

But Winship qualifies his own data, something the article does report.  In fact, he interprets his data "cautiously."  He warns that race, education, and parenting styles might separate the two groups.  And that the families of women tied by marriage to "troubled men" might be hurt by marriage.

There is no question that there is a correlation between marriage and the well being of children.  Lots of research shows that.  But that is a far cry from naming having children outside marriage the cause of the problem, and getting married before having children the solution.  There is also a well documented correlation between higher income and the well being of children.  If we start by naming poverty the problem, we create a different trajectory of changes.  But they are changes that implicate the social and economic policies responsible for income and wealth inequality.  Blaming marriage or the lack thereof is a distraction, and one that is welcome by those who benefit from the status quo.

The story of Chris and Jessica and their children could have been told in other ways.  And could have been told with a third family, a couple in a miserable marriage, with an uninvolved, unemployed, alcoholic, and/or violent father.  Believe me, then it wouldn't look like marriage was the solution.

As for the other ways of telling the story, consider the comment Tim Casey of Legal Momentum included when he sent a link to the article out to an anti-poverty listserve. "Note the lack of discussion," he wrote, "of the policies that in other wealthy countries ameliorate the economic insecurity that is so common for US single mother families -- free or subsidized child care, paid parental leave, an adequate welfare system, childrens' allowances, assured child support, etc."  The child poverty rates is much lower in other Western countries than in the US precisely because of such policies. Public responsibility for all children -- who are the future we all depend on -- is in my mind the mark of a civilized nation.  We are barbarians in that respect.  The New York Times should include that point of view the next time it writes about the unequal chances of children.  

Advocates of same-sex marriage, and the experts who support them, have done a good job of debunking the idea that children need to be raised by their married biological parents.  Their research and conclusions were nowhere in the NY Times article.  Gay rights advocates do not necessarily want to be connected to Jessica and her children.  That, in my mind, is a failure of vision. Marriage isn't the one answer to child inequality for children with straight or gay parents.

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