Magazine | August 24, 2015, Issue

What Is a Single Mother?

The term encompasses several groups whose plights are different

In 2013, families headed by single mothers were more than five times as likely to be poor as two-parent families. This ratio has been remarkably stable over time: Thirty years ago, it was almost identical.

How can that be? After all, the past 30 years have seen impressive growth in women’s education and labor-force participation, and in other statistics that indicate prosperity. The income gains for college-educated women, in particular, have been nothing short of remarkable. Yet single mothers haven’t been able to cash in on these trends; in recent years, higher incomes have flowed only to married mothers and childless women. Understanding this problem requires a closer look at the subgroups that make up the “single mother” category.

Before the mid 1990s, the vast majority of single-mother families were the product of divorce. As recently as 1990, divorced and separated mothers outnumbered never-married mothers (i.e., women who are unmarried and have never been married to the father of their child) almost two to one. But divorce has been on the decline since the early 1980s. So even though divorced moms have made modest economic gains, single mothers as a group remain stubbornly likely to live in poverty. The reason for this is the stunning growth in the number of women who give birth out of wedlock. With 40 percent of births in the United States now occurring outside marriage, many more single-mother families today result from premarital childbearing than from failed marriages. (Widows are a small fraction of the total, around 6 percent.)

The difference between these two groups has been lost on many policymakers and pundits, who all too often view single mothers as a monolithic demographic category. And although teenage childbearing is a problem in its own right, focusing too narrowly on teenagers misses the larger overall problem of single motherhood: Over three-fourths of women who give birth out of wedlock are older than 19, and some teenage parents do get married.

The increase in never-married mothers and the decline in divorced mothers is important, for a number of reasons.

Research I’ve conducted with Haverford College sociologist Matt McKeever shows that divorced mothers and never-married mothers couldn’t be more different when it comes to making ends meet. We’ve looked at data on tens of thousands of women, using two different national surveys — the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS) and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) — and the patterns are clear. The CPS allows us to contrast modern-day single mothers with those from the 1980s. Back then, divorcées had median incomes more than double those of never-married mothers. Thirty years later, the disparity hasn’t changed much. All women have higher incomes, as measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, than their counterparts 30 years ago did, but only married mothers have seen really big gains. Indeed, marriage remains one of the most important sources of prosperity in America.

This is also evident in the NLSY, which tracks individuals over time. We followed women in the NLSY, who were initially interviewed as teenagers in 1979, into their 40s and 50s. Women who delayed childbirth until marriage and stayed married saw their family incomes almost triple over these years. In sharp contrast, women who gave birth out of wedlock saw their incomes increase by only about 40 percent, even as they approached what should have been their peak earning years. This figure includes women who married subsequent to a non-marital birth, and it shows that the economic burden of non-marital childbearing has endured (predictably, mothers who never married did even worse). Marriage will make things better for unwed mothers, but it won’t come close to eliminating all of the problems. Indeed, women who give birth out of wedlock remain almost four times as likely as married mothers to receive public aid in their late 30s and early 40s. (In comparison, divorced women are about twice as likely to be on welfare as married mothers.) This difference in aid receipt persists whether or not never-married mothers subsequently get married. So a non-marital birth often consigns women and their children to decades of dependence on government aid.

The demographics provide some sense of why women who give birth out of wedlock are so much worse off. As we might expect, they have had less education — the difference in college degrees is especially stark — and consistently lower employment rates, at least until the past few years, than either married or divorced mothers. It’s especially noteworthy that they work even fewer hours than married mothers, who can usually count on their husband’s income. Never-married mothers are therefore the least prepared to earn a living, judging by basic economic markers — but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Even when women who give birth out of wedlock do graduate from college, they see less economic benefit from their degrees than married or divorced mothers. McKeever and I show that divorced mothers receive returns on a college degree that are almost 50 percent larger than those earned by women who give birth out of wedlock. All women have achieved impressive gains in education and work experience over the past 30 years, but never-married mothers have been much less able to convert these gains into income.

It’s important not to assume causation: Marriage itself, or the lack of it, may not be the reason for these disparities. All signs suggest that women who have children out of wedlock were usually disadvantaged to begin with. This is an instance of what social scientists refer to as selection effect. For instance, women who were themselves born out of wedlock are especially likely to give birth out of wedlock once they become teenagers (and they’re also more likely to have trouble in their marriages). The poverty associated with unwed motherhood thus cascades through the generations, with the members of each successive generation often enduring the same financial hardship that their mothers did. This is a big reason why soaring rates of single parenthood have contributed to overall income inequality.

There’s other evidence that never-married mothers are at a disadvantage even before they become mothers. A study by economist V. Joseph Hotz and his colleagues contrasts women who gave birth as teenagers with their peers who miscarried. This naturally occurring experiment showed that the childbirth itself made little difference in women’s future earning power. In other words, many teenage mothers would have been poor as adults even if they had not given birth. This result strongly suggests that never-married mothers suffer from greater challenges than just the absence of a spouse (although one should keep in mind the limitations inherent in comparing two different demographic groups: teenaged mothers and never-married mothers).

And the problem is not simply a lack of money. Women who give birth prior to marriage also tend to lack cultural capital, the non-economic resources that help people get ahead. Consider these two differences: Sixty-three percent of never-married mothers grew up in households that received newspapers, compared with 75 percent of divorced mothers (and 79 percent of married mothers). There is a similar difference in the percentage of homes in which someone had a library card. These aren’t huge disparities, but the fact that they exist at all is telling. Newspapers and library cards may be insignificant in and of themselves, but they’re both indicative of the hard-to-measure social resources that promote upward mobility by facilitating success in higher education and beyond — realms where never-married mothers have struggled more than divorced single mothers or married women.

Many never-married mothers are not, strictly speaking, single mothers: About half the time, women who give birth out of wedlock have live-in boyfriends. Usually these boyfriends will provide some financial assistance. But they probably won’t provide assistance for long, given that the relationships of cohabiting couples are notoriously unstable. And few of these couples will marry. A year after a nonmarital birth, less than 15 percent of couples will have tied the knot.

Taken as a whole, this research raises troubling questions about how we might help lift these women out of poverty. If never-married mothers have trouble converting their skills into a decent income, teaching them more skills might not be enough. An effective intervention would have to offer a sweeping transformation, beginning in a woman’s family of origin and extending to high school, college, and the workplace. Any of this, let alone all of it, seems unlikely in today’s political climate. Nevertheless, these questions should give us pause in an era when 40 percent of women give birth out of wedlock and then often face decades of low earnings and public-service dependence.

What can be done? There is little agreement. Liberals have long maintained that single motherhood is the product of structural factors such as inequality and discrimination, while conservatives point the finger at a combination of feckless social policies and cultural lapses. The truth, as University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and I show in our forthcoming book Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos, is somewhere in the middle.

Liberals and conservatives can agree that there is a yawning opportunity gap in the United States. A few basic steps that have bipartisan support could get us started on shoring up the tenuous economic foundations of working-class America, and thereby also shrink the success gap between married and single mothers. These include raising the earned-income tax credit, eliminating incarceration for most nonviolent crimes (particularly for low-level drug offenses), and increasing the availability of apprenticeship training (which is already common in Europe).

Cultural change is harder, but it can happen. Consider the success of campaigns against smoking, drunk driving, and teen pregnancy — for example, the National Campaign to Prevent Teenage and Unplanned Pregnancy. It has worked with state and local organizations, advertising agencies, Hollywood producers, and religious institutions in its efforts to change norms and behaviors related to teen pregnancy, which (perhaps as a result) has fallen by more than 50 percent since the early 1990s.

A similar campaign organized around what Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill have called the “success sequence” — that is, pursuing education, work, marriage, and parenthood in that order — could also play a valuable role in reducing the number of women who give birth out of wedlock. As sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefales have shown in their magisterial book Promises I Can Keep, a complex set of factors lead women to put parenthood before marriage. But given the costs of single motherhood to government coffers and society more generally, the first steps described here could pay for themselves many times over in the years to come.

Modest declines in the divorce rate, coupled with the skyrocketing rate of premarital childbearing, have rewritten the demographics of single motherhood and confronted us with a new set of challenges. At least the first step is easy: We can be clear about the terms of the discussion. It no longer makes sense to lump together all single mothers when we know how different divorced mothers and women who give birth out of wedlock really are.

– Mr. Wolfinger is a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah.

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