No, Kids Raised by Single Moms Don’t Do as Well

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 20 2012 8:22 AM

The Kids Are Not Really Alright

It’s worse to be raised by a single mother, even if you’re not poor.

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Why is this? Single mothers, even from wealthier families, have less time. They are less likely to be able to monitor their kids. They do not have a partner who can relieve them when they are tired or frustrated or angry with their kids. This isn’t just a question of taking kids to the array of pampered extracurricular activities that many affluent, two-parent families turn to; it’s about the ways in which two sets of hands, ears, and eyes generally make parenting easier. 

This recognition that it is easier to parent, and that kids are more likely to thrive, in a two-parent home might  be one reason why the divorce bug seems to be on the wane in progressive enclaves like Park Slope and Seattle, according to the New York Times. After the turmoil of the divorce revolution of the 1970s and early 1980s, a marriage mindset has reasserted itself among college-educated Americans. (Barack and Michelle Obama embody the new mindset; Newt Gingrich and his three wives embody the ‘70s mindset.) Today, college-educated Americans are divorcing less, steering clear of nonmarital childbearing, and enjoying relatively high-quality marriages. By contrast, as I recently pointed out in When Marriage Disappears, Americans without college degrees are divorcing at high rates, witnessing dramatic increases in nonmarital childbearing, and seeing their marital quality deteriorate.

The decline of marriage among poor and working-class Americans is partly a consequence of changes in the American economy. In today’s postindustrial economy, it is harder for less-educated Americans, especially poor and working-class men, to find stable, decent-paying jobs. This makes these men less attractive as marriage partners, both in their own eyes and in the eyes of their partners. Hence, less-educated Americans are less likely to get and stay married, even when they are having children.

But my research also suggests that changes in the culture—the kind of changes that Roiphe largely applauds—are implicated in the growing marriage divide between college-educated and less-educated Americans. Specifically, the growing secularization and liberalization of American society seem to be playing out differently by class. Surprisingly, college-educated Americans are now more likely to attend church than their less-educated fellow citizens, and they have also become more marriage-minded since the 1970s—in their attitudes toward divorce, for instance—whereas less-educated Americans have become less marriage-minded over the same time. These cultural changes are only reinforcing the marriage divide in America, insofar as religious attendance and marriage-minded norms tend to strengthen marriage.

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The retreat from marriage in America, a retreat that Roiphe seems keen to defend, has led to “diverging destinies” for children from less-educated and college-educated homes. Children from poor and working-class homes are now doubly disadvantaged by their parents’ economic meager resources and by the fact that their parents often break up. By contrast, children from more-educated and affluent homes are doubly advantaged by their parents’ substantial economic resources and by the fact that their parents usually get and stay married.

Surely a progressive like Roiphe should be concerned about all this, rather than dismissing the recent New York Times news story on the marriage divide in America as a “puritanical and alarmist rumination on the decline of the American family.” Since when is it puritanical and alarmist in progressive circles to raise the red flag about a major driver of social and economic inequality?

W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the National Marriage Project and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow him on Twitter.