What magic power do single mothers possess that make them the target for so much blame for social ills? What witchery are they engaged in that can turn even liberal men—even those who pride themselves on supporting feminist causes!—into reactionaries breathlessly opining that the poor only have themselves to blame for their sexually incontinent ways? Whatever it is, the latest victim is Nicholas Kristof, once champion of ending sex slavery and improving maternity care, but most recently hitting The New York Times to accuse rural single mothers of turning down perfectly nice offers of marriage and forcing their kids to be illiterate in order to get disability checks from the government.
Kristof is but the latest in a long line of mostly male pundits, both liberal and conservative, to argue that the best way to patch up women’s economic concerns is for the little ladies to settle down with one of their no doubt many eligible suitors. Indeed, The New York Times this past month alone has seen two of its male conservative columnists suggest that rings on every female finger and babies in every tummy would cure our economic woes and fix our ill-defined moral rot. Kristof thankfully doesn’t flinch at the horrors of flat lady bellies, but he still frets over low income women’s lack of enthusiasm for marriage:
Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage: In a means-tested program like S.S.I., a woman raising a child may receive a bigger check if she refrains from marrying that hard-working guy she likes. Yet marriage is one of the best forces to blunt poverty. In married couple households only one child in 10 grows up in poverty, while almost half do in single-mother households.
He drives home the point by ending with a story of a young working-class woman who is pregnant and unmarried: “Life is like that for her, a roller coaster partly of her own making.” He reluctantly suggests she is beyond help, as if he were living in the 19th century novel about a ruined woman whose tragic end is inevitable.
In this, Kristof echoes another male journalist, Jason DeParle, who wrote a lengthy feature for The New York Times Magazine that posited that the only real solution to the economic woes of working class mothers is a wedding ring. DeParle compared the fates of two women, Goofus and Gallant style: One who held off having children and secured a marriage to a good provider, and one who had children outside of marriage and “stayed in a troubled relationship” that eventually fell apart, leaving her broke and constantly stressed out. You couldn’t craft a better morality play to appeal to men who believe women stupidly overlook the good guys and ruin their lives chasing the bad boys. But propping up the hope that the cure for single mothers in economic distress is an army of humble men who may not be sexy but know the value of a good day’s work doesn’t do much for actual women in the world, even as it satisfies the high school kid who had to go stag to the prom lurking inside the heart of many a Beltway journalist.
Let’s be clear: No one is denying that kids do better if they are raised by loving couples who can share resources like time and money. But to state this is about as useful as stating that kids do better with more resources, period. To justify obsessing over non-marrie-ness—at the expense of, say, asking why a single income isn’t enough to be middle class, as it was for huge percentages of the population in the 1950s—requires believing that single women need a bit more scolding, or for the liberals, minor policy tweaks to get married and stay married.
There’s no reason to think that this is true, however. A study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family over the summer showed that lower-income women value marriage more than women of higher incomes. Indeed, one of the researchers pointed out that holding traditional values often lays the groundwork for becoming a single mother:
"Why are low-income women postponing marriage but having babies?" Karney asked. "Because they don’t want to get divorced. They think if they marry their current partner, they are likely to get divorced — and couples that have financial strain are much more likely to have marital difficulties. It’s like these women have been reading the scientific journals about marriage; their intuition is absolutely correct.”
Falling into a lower tax bracket doesn’t make someone immune to wanting marriages to be happy and based on passion, nor should it. But Kristof conjures up an image of lower-income women making their choices for more quotidian reasons with his phrase “marrying that hard-working guy she likes,” as if he were describing a quasi-arranged medieval marriage made to merge the agricultural interests of serfs. For a man who has spent much of his career fighting against sex trafficking, it’s a weird thing to suddenly back a transactional model of marriage.
In the near past, people were often pushed into loveless marriages because of accidental pregnancy, and the result was more adultery and more unhappiness within marriage, neither of which is very good for children. The pressure to rush to the altar that defined the 50s through the 70s led to the surge in the divorce rate in the 70s and 80s, after all. The average age of first marriage has risen to nearly 29 for men and 26.5 for women, which is almost a year older than even a year ago, but this is no reason to fret. We should admire younger generations for avoidng commitments they’re not reasonably sure they can uphold. Rural Kentucky has long been a state where people marry young and divorce often, giving people there a full eyeball of how badly marriage can go wrong. Women who take these lessons to heart and wait until they’re more secure to marry have reasons for that decision.
There are many options for dealing with children in poverty outside of the inhumane and impotent demands that women be pushed into marriages they don’t want or weren’t even on offer in the first place. We can push for government-subsidized daycare, better family-leave policies, a stronger social-safety net, and actually attacking the outrageous income inequalities that cause far more child poverty than does an absence of wedding rings. We can treat the wellbeing of children like it’s a national priority, instead of an opportunity to air disapproval of strangers’ romantic lives. We can expand sex education and contraception and abortion access, so that the privilege middle-class families have of waiting until they’re ready to have kids is available to all. All these strategies are not only more moral than slashing disability or welfare payments in hopes of causing women to marry out of desperation, but they also have a better chance of helping children than simply hoping that white knights are coming to rescue their mothers from poverty.