The Agenda

Brief Thoughts on Single Parenthood

Katie Roiphe, writing in Slate, finds a recent New York Times report on the rise of single parenthood — a 53 percent majority of births to women under 30 were, as of 2009, outside of marriage — condescending. One of Roiphe’s arguments is the following:

[O]ne of the reasons children born outside of marriage suffer is the culturally ubiquitous idea that there is something wrong or abnormal about their situation. Once it becomes clear that there is, at least, nothing abnormal about their situation, i.e. when this 53 percent of babies born to women under 30 come of age in the majority, the psychological landscape, at least, will be vastly transformed.

Even people who are certain that the children of single mothers are always and forever doomed to a compromised existence, are going to have to await more information about a world in which these kids are not considered illegitimate or unconventional or outsiders, where the sheer number of them redefines and refreshes our ideas of family.

Given the sharp increase in the number of children born outside of marriage since 1960, an increase documented a decade ago by the social scientists Christopher Jencks and David Ellwood, one assumes that the idea that Roiphe describes as “culturally ubiquitous” is in fact ubiquitous only among the college-educated upper-middle-class. And even in that context, there is awareness of and sensitivity to the particular challenges facing blended families, etc. If we assume that there isn’t a sudden step change at 53 percent, i.e., if we assume that the cultural acceptance of children born outside of marriage has increased as the share of children born outside of marriage has increased, we might fairly good sense of how these children might fare relative to children born within marriage over the last few decades. 

Moreover, some of the research we’ve seen suggests that stigma is not the most important driver of outcomes for children born outside of marriage. Consider the following from Jencks and Ellwood:

McLanahan and Sandefur (1994) assembled data from a number of American surveys showing that children who grew up with both of their biological parents performed better on school achievement tests, had fewer children as teenagers, finished high school more often, attended college more often, and earned more in early adulthood. They also showed that only about half of this association was explained by parental income. For our purposes their most important finding was that children raised by both of their biological parents did better than children raised in any alternative arrangement. There was no consistent difference between children raised by remarried mothers, divorced mothers, and never-married mothers. Children raised by a widow fared somewhat better than those whose biological families had been disrupted for other reasons. The sampling errors for some of the estimates are fairly large, so concluding that all forms of disruption are equivalent may be premature, but that seems to be a fair reading of currently available evidence.

This is intriguing, as one would assume that remarried mothers and their children would be less likely to be ostracized than divorced single mothers or never-married mothers. Yet it seems that there is a meaningful difference in outcomes between children who grow up with both of their biological parents and those who are raised by nonbiological married-couple parents. The sociologist Andrew Cherlin has more on this subject in his book The Marriage-Go-Round

It turns out that maternal vocabulary has a strong impact on the cognitive development of young children. So does the number of words spoken to children in the first few years of their life, as the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley have observed:

Their painstaking study began by recording each month — for 2-1/2 years — one full hour of every word spoken at home between parent and child in 42 families, categorized as professional, working class, or welfare families. Years of coding and analyzing every utterance in 1,318 transcripts followed. Rare is a database of this quality. “Remarkable,” says Assistant Secretary of Education Grover (Russ) Whitehurst, of the findings: By age 3, the recorded spoken vocabularies of the children from the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families. Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour. Extrapolating this verbal interaction to a year, a child in a professional family would hear 11 million words while a child in a welfare family would hear just 3 million.

The implications for society are staggering: Hart and Risley’s follow-up studies at age 9 show that the large differences in the amount of children’s language experience were tightly linked to large differences in child outcomes.

Intuitively, it does seem as though it would be difficult for a single parent to match the number of words spoken per hour as a co-parenting couple, though there might be rare exceptions. I am often told that I speak very quickly, for example. The trouble is that single parents, particularly working single parents, are often exhausted and overstretched, thus making it difficult to provide as much cognitive enrichment as a married parent, let alone to speak as many words as two married parents. 

I should stress that it is entirely possible that Roiphe is right to suggest that as single parenthood becomes more pervasive, the costs associated with it will diminish. But I wonder if we’re thinking about this in the right way. The relative costs of single parenthood for the cognitive development children might decrease as the median shifts, but the costs might remain very high relative to a counterfactual universe in which a larger share of all children are born to two-parent families. Insofar as we care about wage and wealth dispersion and the intergenerational transmission of economic and social advantage, we might also be concerned about a world in which a minority of children are raised in married-couple families that offer greater opportunities for cognitive development than the growing majority born outside of marriage. 

I’m not sure the (supposed) condescension of Jason DeParle and Sabrina Tavernise, the former of whom has devoted much of his life to reporting on the challenges facing poor women before and after welfare reform, is the issue I’d focus on.  

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