Following in the footsteps of her poverty-warrior father, Sargent Shriver, Maria Shriver has cast a needed spotlight on the millions of women and children in America who live in or at the brink of poverty. Her newest Shriver Report, A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink, has garnered positive notice in liberal circles for advocating a progressive agenda — encompassing everything from expanded family leave to a higher minimum wage — that is designed to help women and children struggling to make it in modern America. But in one major respect, the report’s rollout, which was orchestrated this month by Shriver and the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP), is surprisingly regressive.
Although the Shriver Report strikes some grace notes on fatherhood and marriage in essays by scholars Kathryn Edin and Ann O’Leary, the public message presented by Shriver and CAP is downright dismissive of any efforts to strengthen these two institutions. Their message: Government, business, and other institutions must accommodate themselves to the “profound change in the makeup and reality of American families,” especially the dramatic increase in single motherhood. In their words, the country has to “adapt to this change and deal with it.” This all may sound well and good, but in the real world this accommodationist agenda — accept the reality of family breakdown, don’t do anything to renew the two-parent family — would lock in three profoundly unequal and regressive trends in American life.
First, accepting the Shriver Report’s family agenda means embracing the reality that, for a substantial and growing share of poor and minority women, childrearing is primarily women’s work. American society as a whole has come a long way in promoting the “new father” ideal, where men are expected to take on a substantial share of the day-in-day-out burdens (and joys!) of parenthood. But the report would have the nation make its peace with the growing share of families headed by single mothers — now, about 24 percent of families. Since most nonresidential fathers do not see their children even once a week, this strategy necessarily makes parenting primarily the work of women for millions of families across the nation. This certainly looks like an effort, albeit unintentional, to turn back the clock on gender progress in the family.
Second, accepting the Shriver Report’s family agenda means embracing the reality that poor children are more likely to remain stuck in an intergenerational cycle of poverty, without the same shot at the American Dream as their more affluent peers. Research from the Pew Mobility Project finds that one major reason why poor children are less likely to move up the economic ladder than their more affluent peers is that they are also less likely to enjoy the shelter, security, and economic resources of a two-parent home. In fact, lower-income children whose parents divorce are only about half as likely to make it to the middle or upper class as children whose parents remain married. And at the community level, a new study from Harvard and Berkeley finds that family structure is a powerful predictor of upward mobility for poor children. Indeed, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues called family structure the “the strongest and most robust predictor” of economic mobility for lower-income children in communities across the country. All this suggests that the Shriver Report’s public strategy of accommodating single-parent families only locks children into the very poverty that Shriver decries.
Third, accepting the Shriver Report’s family agenda means embracing the reality that a whole class of children will face heightened odds of social and emotional trauma — higher rates of everything from imprisonment to depression. The research on families tells us that boys from single-mother families are more than twice as likely to end up in prison before they turn 30, and that girls from single-mother families are about three times as likely to end up pregnant as teens. These outcomes are not simply a question of money (though families headed by single mothers typically have less money than families headed by married parents). Even in Sweden — which has the kind of generous welfare state the Shriver Report is promoting — one study of the entire population of Swedish children found that children, especially boys, in single-parent families were about twice as likely to experience “psychiatric disease, suicide or suicide attempt, injury, and addiction.”
In their latest offering, Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress are clearly motivated by the noblest of intentions: to lift an estimated 70 million women and children in America out of poverty and economic insecurity. But unless they pay more attention to articulating and advancing an agenda that will also strengthen two-parent families, their intention is not likely to be fully realized. That’s because genuine progress in advancing gender equity, equal opportunity for all Americans, and child welfare depends on finding a way to renew the quality and stability of men’s connection to family life — especially in the poor and working-class communities where marriage is in retreat. In other words, the nation’s most vulnerable women and children are not likely to push “back from the brink” of economic and social marginalization until we can renew their ties to men and marriage.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.