Mere Addition and Single Parents

Monica Potts doesn’t care for the “no wedding, no womb” campaign:

Speaking of expectations, [Christelyn] Karazin makes clear that part of what motivated her campaign was that she was pregnant and unwed in college, despite being from a two-parent, middle-class home, and felt great shame in her community. When [Jamilah] Lemieux pushed back on the idea that the shame Karazin felt was a good thing, Dyson asked Lemieux if, maybe, shame can do good if it curbs behavior that ultimately destroys women’s lives. But that question shows he missed the point Lemieux was working to make: Becoming a single-mother actually doesn’t destroy the lives of many women. It’s not as though low-income women across the country would be going to college in droves but for the children they’re having: The chances of them going to college, and finishing, are low. It’s not as though being a clerk at a fast-food restaurant was going to turn into a stellar career but for the children that they’re having: Low-paying jobs now often remain low-paying jobs in the future. You get the point: The expectations and experiences middle-class women have in their lives don’t do much to inform them about the choices lower-income women make, because the expectations and experiences are entirely different.

That’s true, but I don’t think we should take it too far. It’s dumb to act like economically struggling single mothers would have no problems had they simply chosen not to have children. But if you look at the array of problems facing low income single mothers, and then you look at any one problem, you can easily reach the conclusion that solving that problem would still leave them in a bad situation. None of that changes the fact that each of those problems is a real problem on its own.

The more dramatic issue here, though, concerns not mothers but children. It’s pretty clear at this point that kids raised in stable two-parent households (though as many Nordic countries demonstrate, not necessarily marriages) do a lot better in life than those who aren’t, and that’s true over and above the impact of income. If women who aren’t involved in partnerships they believe will be stable for the long-run all decided en masse to never have children, the number of kids raised outside of stable two-parent households would decline sharply. Not to zero, obviously, since people frequently make erroneous judgments about these things. But down. This would be a huge gift to incumbent politicians, who would then be able to claim credit for declining child poverty, rising test scores, etc.


But there’s a question of who’s actually better off here. If child poverty declines because a poor child becomes non-poor, then the beneficiary is the child. If child poverty declines because a poor child isn’t born in the first place, then it would be strange to say the child is the winner. The winner is perhaps the conscience of more-privileged members of society who now don’t need to feel so bad about themselves. That kind of thing has a certain appeal, but it doesn’t really make sense. Shaming poor women so middle class people can feel better about ourselves is a kind of regressive psychic transfer. On the other hand, I don’t think we should simply assume that people are aware of cutting edge social science on family instability. Better information might lead people to make different choices and I don’t think we do people any favors by obscuring the reality that kids raised in unstable situations tend to have more problems in life.