Who owns the narrative about single mothers in the United States? If the past few weeks are any indication, it’s educated, white, married people who are leading the current debate around single parenting and marriage rather than single mothers themselves.
Lost are the voices of unmarried mothers of color, who, according to 2017 data from the Pew Research Center, account for 57 percent of single mothers in the United States. I am one of these women — a Latina single mom of a thriving toddler. But watching the debate swirling around a new book called “The Two Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” by economist Melissa S. Kearney, I felt invisible. From the op-ed page of The New York Times to The Atlantic, which ran a piece titled “Is Single Parenthood the Problem?” media elites are weighing in on an issue that largely affects the working class, the poor, people of color, and others who become single parents either by choice or circumstance. That’s the problem, not single parents.
The main argument in Kearney’s book is one that we have heard before: Children raised by single-parent households are less better off than children raised in homes with two married parents. “I ask and answer these questions as an economist,” Kearney writes, “not as someone with a moral or value-laden proposition.” But isn’t hoping more people marry a value-laden proposition? Not quite, says Kearney, who views marriage as something that allows parents to “pool their resources and share household responsibilities, including (when it applies) raising children. Two is greater than one,” she writes.
Here is where Kearney and others are missing the lens of structural racism and inequality in the United States. When discussing her own family, Kearney writes that they “inhabited a specific time and place in American history when people could thrive on hard work and good fortune. That middle-class lifestyle and the upward mobility we experienced are harder to come by today.” However, for Black, Latino, and Native Americans, the rungs on the ladder to the middle class have been broken for decades. From the backbreaking morally reprehensible era of chattel slavery to the COVID-19 pandemic’s “essential workers,” communities of color have always worked hard, whether they had a choice or not. It’s the “good fortune” part that has escaped many of us largely because of systemic forces beyond our control.
As a journalist who has studied sociology and whose work focuses on US inequality, I respect data. But I also know that narratives like the ones Kearney discusses are incomplete without including context on the policies and practices for how we got the data we have. One piece of data I find most compelling is the racial wealth gap. According to an analysis from the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in 2019 the average per capita wealth of white Americans was $338,093 compared to $60,126 for Black Americans. These figures are the direct result of neighborhood redlining and other policies that have prevented Black and brown families from accessing the same levels of generational wealth that white families have. Even at the margins of this data, racism rears its ugly head. An analysis of the racial wealth gap from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis in 2016 found that just 1.7 percent of the wealthiest people in the United States are Black.
These gaps are made worse by the fact that women, especially women of color, continue to be paid less than our male counterparts, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost wages over a lifetime. When I chose to have my son, I was making the best money I had made in my life. I also had two degrees and a mortgage, something I accomplished without a husband. But that money and those accolades did nothing to shield me from the bizarre treatment I got as a pregnant unmarried woman of color. Some progressive people I know asked me intrusive questions about my relationship status and the race of my child’s father, demonstrating that we are still a long way from people accepting the reality of parenting today, regardless of political affiliation.
Kearney says talking about the benefits of marriage is uncomfortable. But I ask: Uncomfortable for whom? I don’t know many single parents who feel shame. I don’t and neither does my co-parent or my parents, who have provided enormous amounts of love and support for me and my son. In fact, most single parents I know, regardless of their economic situation, are too busy handling the obligations of parenting to be worried about what the rest of the world thinks about them. Instead single parents are witnessing a hostile government and judiciary remove many of the policies that could assist in the economic mobility that Kearney writes about. We have lost the federal right to an abortion and race-based affirmative action; emergency child-care funding that was included in the American Rescue Plan Act and poverty-reducing government stimulus funds have ended. Marriage will not stop these decisions from further limiting the economic and social mobility of children in single-parent homes.
Society must accept that single parents are here to stay. People who are becoming single parents today are more educated and older than a few decades ago, and that will continue to be the case as the appeal of marriage shrinks for younger generations as a whole. The United States must make room for this reality. And, yes, this includes engaging the elite, particularly those who say they support social justice initiatives for poor children, for example, but send their own kids to private schools for the well-connected. We must all engage in the work of using our privilege to raise up the less fortunate.
Supporting single parents means making child care affordable and accessible for all, not something that only two-parent households can afford. It means allowing for flexible work schedules and paid time off policies.
To me what’s uncomfortable about the conversation on single parenting is insisting that marriage is the only way to raise healthy and well-adjusted children. Consider that in 2017, 35 percent of all unmarried parents were cohabiting with a partner, compared to 20 percent in 1997. That is a major societal shift that must be accounted for. According to Kearney, “There is simply not currently a robust, widespread alternative to marriage in US society.”
That’s not a failure of single parents, that’s a failure of society.
Tanzina Vega is a journalist whose work focuses on inequality. She is a contributing Globe Opinion writer.