The New York Times
By: Nancy Folbre
August 20, 2012
Blame those single moms. If only they had married and stayed married, their children would have turned out so much better.
This argument elicits furious responses from those who insist that single mothers deserve more respect, with good reason. The role that men play in the single-parent situation also deserves more attention.
But the blame game persists. In a recent New York Times article on poverty problems, a youth counselor says, "If you don't have a father figure in your life, you don't have discipline and structure, and without structure, you don't have anything. You have chaos."
The article goes on to say that this analysis has support from many academics who study poverty. But the "chaos" conclusion does not follow from research showing that, on average and controlling for easily measured factors like income and education, children raised by two biological parents tend to fare better than others.
The "chaos" argument does provide a rationale for minimizing public expenditures on poor children, on the grounds that they are damaged human capital, nonperforming assets, sunk costs that can never be recouped.
Step back from any moral concerns and focus on an economic balance sheet. Would greater public investments in poor children pay off for taxpayers?
Many economists have demonstrated a high rate of social return on public expenditures on poor children. James Heckman makes a famously strong case for early childhood education.
A new book edited by Greg J. Duncan and Richard Murnane, "Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools and Children's Life Chances," offers clear evidence that programs that increase income for families living in or close to poverty, like the earned-income tax credit, have positive effects on educational performance, as do programs that reduce economic segregation.
In other words, human capital isn't produced in schools alone. In a thoughtful review of this book, Richard D. Kahlenberg explains, "If we want to make a difference in schools, we cannot ignore what goes on outside them."
Improving educational outcomes for children should improve productivity, promote economic growth and generate higher future tax revenues. That's where the human-capital story leads.
But the chaos analysis suggests that public investments won't help fatherless children. As Charles Murray puts it in his book "Coming Apart," "When families become dysfunctional, or cease to form altogether, growing numbers of children suffer in ways that have little to do with lack of money."
The sentence itself reads true. And many of us (not just children) suffer in ways that have little to do with lack of money. But if all single-parent families are defined as dysfunctional or nonexistent, public assistance to them is hardly likely to pay off. If we don't want to "throw good money after bad," we should just cut our losses.
In the United States today, most births to women under 30 take place outside of marriage. The suggestion that these children are a lost cause provides a powerful excuse for ignoring those growing up in poverty.
But leading researchers on family structure, including the Princeton sociologist Sara McLanahan, explicitly assert that government should do more to close the gap between rich and poor children.
Unfortunately, this issue seems to have dropped off a national political agenda dominated by proposals to cut taxes and public spending.
Single mothers have proved particularly vulnerable to the high unemployment and underemployment rates resulting from the Great Recession. The number of them living in poverty increased steadily between 2000 and 2010.
Most of them could easily have escaped poverty by relinquishing their children to foster care.
But they chose not to write off their responsibility.