A new policy brief derived from The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Survey of American Family Finances and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics shows exactly how much family really matters when it comes to helping kids out with important life events and transitions on the financial side. There’s really no surprise there.
But some of the detailed findings on the trouble single mother families face make for some bleak reading:
Single mothers tend to be younger than two-parent households raising children, and nearly half have never been married. And they are in a more fragile financial state than households with two parents. Two-thirds of single-mother families had income under $40,000 in the previous year, and most have very little money in reserves: About half have virtually no net worth, while three-quarters of two-parent families have positive net worth. Single mothers report owing personal loans to friends and family at a higher rate than two-parent households (19 percent versus 11 percent) and are twice as likely to have past-due bills (26 percent versus 13 percent).
A read through the whole report points to the unavoidable conclusion that a major goal of social policy has to be the formation of two-parent households.
This shouldn’t involve—as the occasional dorky pastor type or culture warrior might imagine—giving chastity and abstinence lessons to teens. Such lessons aren’t a bad thing necessarily; it’s just that over the centuries this kind of influence appears to be, well, limited.
And on the other side of the divide, this isn’t about birth control either. Short of lacing the tapwater with birth control drugs, we aren’t going to get anywhere on the single parent problem by focusing on this end of the equation. In fact, as birth control (and abortion) became more available, the numbers of single parent households has more than doubled—from the sixties with the pill on up through Roe v. Wade in the 1970s. Availability of birth control to women who want or need it is important for other reasons,
There is, however, a lot that can be done by looking at how young men figure in to the problem. To be a father but not be married to the mother of your children needs to be made both unnecessary and uncool. More role models ought to help here: we need more men in schools, and more men in the agencies that interact with youth. And much could be done by thinking creatively about employment and regulation policy: cities like New York and Chicago ought to be tinkering with their regulatory and economic policies to create the kinds of jobs that young men without a college degree can do.
Dealing merely with the consequences of single parent families—kids growing up in poverty, and the generationally compounding inequality that emerges as these kids end up replicating the trajectories of their parents—is in the end much more expensive and, let’s be honest, largely hopeless if we aren’t doing more on the prevention side.