New York Times 8 February 2014
The last few weeks have brought an unusual convergence of voices from both the center and the left about a topic that is typically part of conservative rhetorical territory: poverty and single-parent families. Just as some conservatives have started talking seriously about rising inequality and stagnant incomes, some liberals have finally begun to admit that our stubbornly high rates of poverty and social and economic immobility are closely entwined with the rise of single motherhood.
But that’s where agreement ends. Consistent with its belief in self-sufficiency, the right wants to see more married-couple families. For the left, widespread single motherhood is a fact of modern life that has to be met with vigorously expanded government support. Liberals point out, correctly, that poverty rates for single-parent households are lower in most other advanced economies, where the welfare state is more generous.
That argument ignores a troubling truth: Single-parent families are not the same in the United States as elsewhere. Simply put, unmarried parents here are more likely to enter into parenthood in ways guaranteed to create turmoil in their children’s lives. The typical American single mother is younger than her counterpart in other developed nations. She is also more likely to live in a community where single motherhood is the norm rather than an alternative life choice.
The sociologist Kathryn Edin has shown that unlike their more educated peers, these younger, low-income women tend to stop using contraception several weeks or months after starting a sexual relationship. The pregnancy — not lasting affection and mutual decision-making — that often follows is the impetus for announcing that they are a couple. Unsurprisingly, by the time the thrill of sleepless nights and colicky days has worn off, two relative strangers who have drifted into becoming parents together notice they’re just not that into each other. Hence, the high breakup rates among low-income couples: Only a third of unmarried parents are still together by the time their children reach age 5.