Sometimes research results are politically incorrect, or even offensive for some of us, and still worth talking about.
“Wayward Sons,” a report on “the emerging gender gap in labor markets and education,” from Third Way, a center-left policy research organization, presents exactly that kind of opportunity. The MIT economists David H. Autor and Melanie Wasserman took a “deep dive” into the economic trends, research and statistics regarding growing educational and economic disparities between men and women, and changes in family structure, and found that “the decline of two-parent households” is particularly hard on the sons of single parents, who are usually women.
Binyamin Appelbaum spoke to Autor for The Times’s Business Day section (“Study of Men’s Falling Income Cites Single Parents”). He summed up the proposed problem: Income inequality has soared, stretching the gap between rich and poor, and a smaller share of Americans are making the climb. The children of lower-income parents are ever more likely to become, in turn, the parents of lower-income children. A growing share of lower-income children are raised by their mother but not their father, and research shows that those children are at a particular disadvantage, with the consequences appearing larger for boys than girls. Single mothers spend more time with their daughters, and those daughters are both more likely to enroll in college, and more likely to finish, than boys raised in single-parent households.
It’s the very definition of a vicious cycle, and anecdotes about personal experience or presidents raised by single mothers can’t change the numbers or explain them. No one — not Autor and Wasserman or anyone else — has a definitive explanation for the gender differences in outcomes. Causation is unclear, but correlation isn’t: Overall, men and boys are struggling in a changed environment.
But while the fact that the sons of single mothers struggle more than daughters is the easy headline to take away from the work done by Autor and Wasserman, it’s the wrong one. The focus on men and boys shouldn’t distract from a larger problem: Single mothers and their daughters may be doing better, but they can’t be said to be thriving. Single motherhood is associated with poor health in middle age, financial hardship and depression. The statistical impacts of being raised by a single parent (like lower average scores on standardized tests, poorer grades and an increased likelihood of dropping out of high school or failing to attend college) may be stronger for sons, but they affect daughters too.
We as a society can do better for children raised by single mothers — and for families headed by single parents in general. All of the work-life-balance conversation that’s dominated this blog and much of the news media for weeks comes down to this same problem: It’s difficult to raise children in a society that assumes there’s a parent at home, and one in which the guiding philosophy for supporting families is “every man for himself.” That struggle is magnified for single parents.
In a comment on the Times article, Timothy Casey, a senior staff lawyer at Legal Momentum, a women’s legal defense and education fund, writes that “the U.S. does much less than its high-income peers to assure single-parent families basic economic security, and much less than its high-income peers to help single parents balance jobholding and caregiving.” His research (with his co-author, Laurie Maldonado) compared American single-parent families with single-parent families in 16 other high-income countries, and found that American single-parent families “are worst off”:
They have the highest poverty rate. They have the highest rate of no health-care coverage. They face the stingiest income support system. They lack the paid-time-off-from-work entitlements that in comparison countries make it easier for single parents to balance caregiving and jobholding. They must wait longer than single parents in comparison countries for early childhood education to begin. They have a low rate of child support receipt.
American single parents also work more hours for less pay — not a circumstance conducive to raising young children.
The problems that create a cycle of poverty for men and boys catch women as well. We could improve the prospects of those single parents, and their sons and daughters, by finding ways to make it easier for all of us to raise our children and financially support them at the same time.
Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at: