How the Right Gets it Wrong on Single Motherhood

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New York City just debuted a controversial ad campaign warning of the dangers of teen parenthood. Which is odd since, according to The Wall Street Journal, teen pregnancy rates have declined over the past two decades, dropping 47% since 1991. Today, rates of unwed motherhood are going up, but among 20-something unmarried women, not teens.

Forgive my lack of shock over a government agency throwing good money at the wrong problem.

The actual picture of single motherhood is a woman with a high-school diploma in her early 20s who lives with her baby daddy. This is especially true in lower-middle-class households. The Atlantic recently published a short, fact-filled article asking why this might be. It’s an important question, since regardless of the mother’s age, children raised by single parents do worse on nearly every indicator than children who are raised by their married-to-each-other biological parents.

The political right has consistently and correctly hammered home the drawbacks of single motherhood. But their solutions amount to: Hey poor women: get married and become good housewives. These “solutions” are both impossible to implement and ignore the actual causes of single motherhood.

To look at why those solutions are not helpful, let’s examine the three reasons The Atlantic’s senior editor cites for the rise of single parenthood among the poor:

  1. Due to the housewife/worker model’s growing irrelevance, high-skill people now marry high skill people
  2. The earning potential of low-skill men continues its decline as women’s earning potential continues climbing up, up, up
  3. It’s becoming cheaper and cheaper to be single

How exactly does telling poor women to get married reverse the decline of low-skill men’s earning potential? How does it free up high-skill men to marry them?

Other right-wing writers such as Suzanne Venker argue that if women would just reassume their  traditional gender roles, low-skill men will be motivated to get educated and become “marriageable.” She actually blames women for low-skill men’s failure to develop valuable skills, saying it’s due to the fact that “Women aren’t women anymore.” She thinks that men assume women would rather get high-paid, high-skill jobs than stay home and raise children on one manufacturing-sector income. Uneducated men apparently find this reality demotivating.

The suggestion to forgo college and career to be stay-at-home-moms is utterly unhelpful because for women who actually have the choice between going to college or marrying a factory worker, the incentives favor college and career. Having a degree and a career actually gives a woman a greater likelihood of marrying an educated, high-income man if that’s what she wants to do, and even Venker admits it generally is.

Not only is getting a degree and a job the most advantageous choice for a young woman today, it’s also a much better choice for protecting her future. For every two women who follow Suzanne’s advice and forgo a career to stay home with her children, one will end up divorced.

I’m trying to remember the last time shaming someone for doing what is in their best interest worked… yeah, that would be never.

Will Suzanne help support the now-single mother with no work history, no degree and no husband to support her? If not, advising her to put herself into such a risky situation seems pretty unkind.

The problem with going on and on about how badly single mothers are screwing their children by being single mothers without offering any real, workable solutions to the problem is that it makes you look like an asshole and you don’t help anyone.

Listen, right wing: You are not going to do away with single motherhood. The best thing you could do is offer help to already struggling single mothers right now. First, because it’s the right thing to do. And second, because finding victims and helping them is how you win hearts and minds.

But if you insist on giving advice on matters of marriage and career, you have a responsibility to give advice that actually benefits the recipients. Telling women to marry men whose career prospects are below theirs and then stay home with their kids both hurts women today and puts them in jeopardy later. Not cool.

Oh, and the picture? The beautiful single mother who raised me.