The Corner

Too Poor to Marry?

The most idiotic reason that single mothers give for not marrying is: “I’m too poor to get married!” Evidently these women believe they’re not too poor to educate, house, feed, clothe, and provide a stable home and an enriching moral and cultural environment for a child on their own. The “I’m too poor” defense, documented by researchers such as Kathryn Edin, refers not simply to the cost of a wedding (which of course is avoidable through a City Hall ceremony), but to the day-to-day institution of marriage itself.

Now comes the New York Times validating this facile excuse for non-marriage in a front-page article on the juggernaut of illegitimacy (more than half of children born to women under 30 in 2009 were illegitimate): “Money helps explain why well-educated Americans still marry at high rates: they can offer each other more financial support, and hire others to do chores that prompt conflict.”

Well, yes, “well-educated Americans” can offer “more” financial support to their spouses than less affluent Americans. But a married spouse at whatever income level is almost always going to improve the economy of a household over a lifetime, whether that spouse is adding the proceeds of a minimum-wage job or the inestimable value of being a stay-at-home parent while the other one works. But the notion that being a married parent requires more financial resources than being a single one is wrong not just as a matter of economic arithmetic but, more importantly, in terms of what married biological parents bring to their child — not money, but a 24/7 partnership in the extraordinarily difficult task of child-rearing. Household wealth is the least important reason to form a two-parent family; the idea that raising children as a single mother is on average in any sense easier than doing so as a couple, even in the stormiest of marital relationships, is absurd, and ignores the enormous strains of being both the sole bread-winner (or even welfare-collector) and the sole source of authority for your child. A second parent in the home provides back-up support in discipline when the other is at the breaking point, and a doubling of the emotional, intellectual, and moral resources that a child can draw on. You don’t need to be wealthy to offer that complementarity; poor married parents have raised stable, successful children for millennia.

The Times provides an amusing feminist twist on the “I’m too poor for marriage” conceit in its observation that “well-educated Americans” can “hire others to do chores that prompt conflict.” Maybe the National Organization for Women really has turned every last female out there into a bean-counting harpy who will log each dirty sock disposed of by herself and by her husband into her Weekly Chart of Oppressive Household Disparities. In which case, it’s still an odd logic that dictates that, because you anticipate that your spouse will not meet your standards of a gender-bias-free zone of household management, you’re better off washing all the diapers (oops! make that buying all the Pampers) on your own.

The rising tide of single-parent households threatens American society. Boys in particular need the institution of marriage not just to bring their own fathers into their lives, but also to create a set of expectations that they themselves will be spouses, as well as fathers, one day. Marriage civilizes males by making them responsible for their children and by imposing on boys the need to develop the bourgeois habits of self-discipline and work that make them attractive mates. “Well-educated Americans” still marry not because they have more money, but because they still intuit the incalculable value that a married father brings to his child, even through the fog of “Strong women can do it all” rhetoric. Opinion-makers, overwhelmingly married themselves, should do everything they can to rebut ignorance about marriage in culture at large. The Times’s comments about money and marriage do not help in that cause.

Heather Mac Donald — Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops

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