An analysis of 2011 U.S. Census data found that 40 percent of households rely on mom as the primary or sole breadwinner. That’s a massive increase from 1960, when the figure was a mere 11 percent.
This trend won’t shock a lot of Americans. They already see it within their own homes or those of their neighbors. Plenty of mommies are better educated and better compensated than their husbands, and a growing number of daddies gladly accept that it is their duty, too, to change diapers and do carpool duty.
But here is the more sobering tale within the data: Nearly two-thirds of these “sole or primary” breadwinning women fit that description because they are the only one working in their household. These are primarily the single mothers. And they tend to be far less educated, and to be black or Hispanic. Their median household income was $23,000.
Compare that to the families studied where it was a married woman who earned more than her mate. Those homes had a median income of $80,000, well above the national median for all households of $57,100.
The most relevant message behind the study is not so much about marriage as about the growing economic divide in this country. If we understand that, we might just agree on policies that can address the problem.
Demographically, these single mothers are a growing and younger percentage of the population. They are the nation’s future, and it’s not a promising one.
Yet it is virtually impossible to bring up the topic of single mothers, whether in Congress or at the dinner table, without inviting a howling lecture. Everybody’s got a convenient scapegoat to blame, and their certitude of their own uprightness permits them to do absolutely nothing to change the status quo. Except to call for more discipline imposed on the already unfortunate.
It’s not the fact that these women are unmarried with children that drives their household poverty. It’s their lack of education and too few jobs, including for the equally under-educated men who are most likely to marry them.
Those who wish to promote marriage often miss a truth about poorer mothers. The single mother without a college degree, and perhaps more so one without a high school diploma, might be making the best choice for her children by continuing to stay single. The men who are more readily available to many of these single mothers – the men they may have already partnered with to father their children – tend to be of similar if not lower education levels.
And less-educated men have seen their real wages shrink along with job opportunities in the last 40 years, as Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education at the Council on Contemporary Families, has pointed out. Coontz also notes that stable single-parent households are better for children’s development than domestic situations in constant flux due to their mother’s relationships, or homes where there is constant parental conflict.
People who are better-educated and who have firm employment opportunities are more likely to marry and stay married.
A study published last year in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that low-income people value marriage as an institution and share thoughts about romance similar to people in higher income brackets.
Researchers at UCLA found that “low-income respondents were more likely than affluent couples to report that their romantic relationships were negatively affected by economic and social issues such as money problems, drinking and drug use.” The low-income respondents actually held more negative views about divorce than their wealthier counterparts.
So let’s not make false assumptions about mothers raising kids who aren’t living with a spouse. Ordinary people need to be able to find stable, legal employment that pays wages that support raising a family in a safe, nurturing environment. We have the ability to make that happen through education and training programs, minimum-wage legislation, trade policy, fiscal policy and other means.
If we ever resolve to turn the tide that is swamping Americans of modest means, we’ll inevitably find that some policy gambits succeed and others are bound to fail. Have you noticed, though, that our political class isn’t even trying?
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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