Diverging responses to family inequality

I have written up my comment from Penn State Symposium on Family Issues. It was prepared in response to a presentation by Sarah McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen titled, “Diverging Destinies Revisited.” Their paper is a followup to McLanahan’s 2003 Population Association of American presidential address. (I wrote a comment on the symposium itself here.) When they finish the volume it will go behind an expensive paywall, so I put the draft paper here in PDF.

Here is the abstract:

Single parenthood, resulting from nonmarital births and divorce, is increasingly becoming associated with lower levels of education for women. Cross-sectional comparisons show that children of married parents are less likely to suffer material deprivation. To reduce hardships for children, therefore, some analysts advocate policies that would increase marriage. I argue that alternative approaches offer more chance of success: increasing education levels and reducing the penalty for single parenthood. There is ample evidence to support both approaches. Education levels are increasing, and are associated with lower levels of child hardship net of family structure. And comparative research shows the negative economic consequences of single parenthood are ameliorable through state policy. In contrast, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent promoting marriage, and the reform of national welfare policy intended to compel poor mothers to marry, have produced no discernible effects on marriage rates or child wellbeing.

Or, even shorter than the abstract, this figure, which shows the logical alternatives for addressing the issue of family structure and poverty for children.



12 thoughts on “Diverging responses to family inequality

  1. I realize many men are not involved in raising their children when the mother is single, but it seems inappropriate to leave them out altogether. I don’t support marriage promotion, but how can we ignore fathers getting involved in positive ways? How can their diverging destinies be plotted as influential too?


    1. I agree. I think the authors also need to parse out the definition of “marriage”. The patriarchal marriage, where the man takes no personal responsibility for meeting the needs of his children, where the woman takes little or no economic responsibility for herself, was a priority of the Bush Admin and they did “promote marriage” through huge tax cuts and benefits subsidized by 2-earner families.

      But promoting egalitarian, 2-earner, 2-parent marriage is another thing altogether.

      I prefer a child-centric approach, such as a “rights of the child” concept that both parents are equally responsible for meeting a child’s needs, financial and nonfinancial. Parents can contract for something else if they want, but that would be the default.


  2. To the comments above, well, you could have default dual-custody, other than in case of convicted violence or rank abandonment by a parent. It would definitely get fathers more involved due to single parenting from divorce, and reduce litigation regarding child-custody.


    1. The situation in divorce would depend on how the parents handled things before the birth of the child and then their behavior following through on these responsibilities.

      Did they go with the default or did they contract for something different?

      If the default and the father did not do child care, for example, he would have a child neglect claim against him that exists independent of the divorce. He would not likely then get custody.

      If they went with the default and the mother did not take financial responsibility, she would also have a neglect claim against here that would exist independent of the divorce. She would not likely then get custody.

      Divorce would then be seen as the harm to the child that it is.


  3. Great piece Philip! I liked how you lambasted “marraige promotion” programs. It is almost as if conservative thinkers want responsibility from everyone else except from themselves and their boondaggle programs cough-cough Charles Murray…


  4. I think I am right on this. Somewhere along the line we passed tax laws that deeply benefit stay at home mothers & daddy works families. There is some kind of extra tax break for them as opposed to mommy + daddy work.


  5. And where are the conservatives with the courage of their convictions on this? Why don’t they support “default-in-divorce” laws, in which a man and woman who have a child automatically become married? Why don’t they aggressively push to repeal no-fault divorce laws? Have marriage laws that reflect what Paul the Apostle says on the topic, with patriarchy established under the law? Implement Gary Becker’s “marriage contract” system?

    Only conservatives have themselves to blame if people think they are more passionate about hating on the gays or ignoring poverty than actually wanting to strengthen marriage.


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