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Home and family
26 July 2012

The true cost of single parenthood

The New York Times is a liberal newspaper, but that didn’t stop them from publishing a mammoth feature on the relationship between family structure and economic inequality. Aptly entitled Two classes, divided by ‘I do’, Jason DeParle’s report lays out the facts: 

  • "College-educated Americans… are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women… are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.  
  • "Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality."  

Of course, it’s very easy to dismiss concern over a social trend by focusing on the inevitable exceptions to the rule. You can have all the facts in the world, but if your opponent can say "I was raised by a lone parent, how dare you say there’s something wrong with me!", then – however unfairly – you’ve lost the argument.

Michael Brendan Dougherty was raised by a lone mother, but writing for the American Conservative, he uses his personal experience to make a very different – and painfully honest – argument: 

  • "I remember telling myself little fantasies as a child and a young man, that my home, peaceful and harmonious if strapped, was probably better than the bickering and arguing and likely divorce that came with having two parents around. As if the only alternative to homes like mine are ones filled with resentment, yelling, and domestic abuse. 
  • "Writing checks, delivering take-out dinners, and trying to fit in 20 minutes of quality time with my empty-nester mom shook those fantasies out of me. We told ourselves all sorts of things while I was growing up, but my mother would have been happier, healthier, and more secure with a man to love, and with one who loved her. She would have had more of that if she had more children too." 

Dougherty makes the point that "broken homes divide and scatter resources" and that, furthermore, this doesn’t stop with the end of childhood: 

  • "Not having a father around meant I took on more student debt than I would have otherwise. It meant I would be recalled from college to do things around the house on the weekend, or I would come home just to make sure she was all right and make sure she spent time with someone. Instead of her helping me start life financially, I was helping her manage her mortgage payment, or paying for a new water-heater… Helping her meant diminished resources for starting my own family when it came time." 

But the greatest cost is an emotional one – borne, of course, by the child, but also the parent (usually the mother) left to cope alone with a job meant for two: 

  • "From my perspective the sexual revolution liberated men to abandon the mothers of their children, defining fatherhood down to an alimony payment and maybe state-defined visitation. Women like my mother were expected to raise families entirely on their own emotional and financial resources, however meager. The answers given to the problems that this social revolution caused tend to be curt and unhelpful: contracept better. Or as my mother was ominously told by some upon my conception, "Just take care of it." 
  • "…just because I turned out fine doesn’t mean that everything is fine." 


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