Farewell, June Cleaver: ‘Non-Traditional Families’ and Economic Opportunity

Michelle Chen May 21, 2010

The nuclear option: Beaver, Wally, June, Ward Cleaver (L to R), of TV's Leave it to Beaver.

Does mar­riage make a dif­fer­ence for the eco­nom­ic prospects of future gen­er­a­tions? A new study sug­gests the sto­ry isn’t so simple.

As the tra­di­tion­al nuclear fam­i­ly fades into his­to­ry, we’ve entered the era of the non-tra­di­tion­al” fam­i­ly: sin­gle par­ents, pairs of moms and dads, blend­ed fam­i­lies, mul­ti-gen­er­a­tional house­holds, grand­par­ent care­givers. With a grow­ing share of babies today born out­side mar­riage, Amer­i­can soci­ety seems to be final­ly leav­ing behind the Leave it to Beaver mod­el.

A new study by Pew Eco­nom­ic Mobil­i­ty Project asks how fam­i­ly struc­ture – a divorced or sin­gle-par­ent house­hold ver­sus a con­ven­tion­al mar­ried one – affects a child’s eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties lat­er in life. Society’s atti­tude toward divorce and sin­gle par­ent­hood has become more open over the past few gen­er­a­tions, but has our economy?

It’s easy to assume that divorce or sin­gle-par­ent­hood would lead to some hard­ships, and Pew did find a link between mar­i­tal sta­tus and socioe­co­nom­ic advance­ment across gen­er­a­tions. But the out­comes are also heav­i­ly influ­enced by race and class fac­tors, which per­sist among poor house­holds whether chil­dren grow up with one par­ent or two.

For chil­dren who start at the bot­tom third of the eco­nom­ic lad­der, Pew found, only 26 per­cent with divorced par­ents move up to the mid­dle or top third as adults, com­pared to 42 per­cent of chil­dren born to unmar­ried moth­ers and 50 per­cent of chil­dren with con­tin­u­ous­ly mar­ried par­ents.”

In terms of absolute mobil­i­ty,” or the poten­tial to rise rel­a­tive to their par­ents’ income lev­el, divorce does not have a clear impact on children’s mobility:

Among chil­dren who start in the bot­tom third, 74 per­cent with divorced par­ents exceed their par­ents’ fam­i­ly income when they reach adult­hood, com­pared to 90 per­cent of chil­dren with con­tin­u­ous­ly mar­ried parents.

Still, the study concluded:

Per­haps sur­pris­ing­ly, there is no evi­dence that being born to an unmar­ried moth­er reduces upward absolute mobil­i­ty from the bot­tom third of the income dis­tri­b­u­tion — the rates for those chil­dren and for chil­dren with con­tin­u­ous­ly mar­ried par­ents are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly indistinguishable.

When you slice the data by race, a dif­fer­ent pic­ture emerges. Divorce appears to make a big­ger dif­fer­ence for black children’s future prospects.

Among African Amer­i­can chil­dren who start in the bot­tom third of the income dis­tri­b­u­tion, 87 per­cent with con­tin­u­ous­ly mar­ried par­ents exceed their par­ents’ income in adult­hood, while just 53 per­cent of those with divorced par­ents do.

Among white chil­dren who start in the bot­tom third, about the same pro­por­tion of adult chil­dren exceed their par­ents’ income regard­less of whether their par­ents were con­tin­u­ous­ly mar­ried (91 per­cent exceed­ing) or divorced (92 per­cent exceeding).

Point­ing out that fam­i­ly struc­ture can explain only some of the dif­fer­ences in eco­nom­ic mobil­i­ty rates between African Amer­i­cans and whites,” the study rais­es intrigu­ing ques­tions about how social pol­i­cy inter­acts with par­ents’ life choices. 

The sweep­ing wel­fare reforms of the Clin­ton era con­tin­ue to reveal the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of using wel­fare to impose cer­tain social norms at the expense of those who don’t fit the mold. As Kate Boo explained in her tren­chant 2003 New York­er arti­cle The Mar­raige Cure,” the sup­posed cor­re­la­tion between mar­riage and eco­nom­ic well-being became per­vert­ed into the ratio­nale that pro­mot­ing mar­riage could reduce sys­temic poverty.

The reforms” tar­get­ed urban black sin­gle moth­ers who were stereo­typed as anti­thet­i­cal to the tra­di­tion­al” fam­i­ly: degen­er­ate, shift­less women who couldn’t stop hav­ing babies. The result was a nation­al cru­sade to push impov­er­ished sin­gle moth­ers simul­ta­ne­ous­ly into the labor mar­ket and the mar­riage mar­ket, for bet­ter or worse.

To antipover­ty and racial jus­tice activists, the pro-mar­riage cre­do has sim­ply repack­aged the old blame-the-poor canard in the rhetoric of fam­i­ly val­ues.” In fact, poor sin­gle moth­ers have been sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly locked out of the social priv­i­leges that their mid­dle-class mar­ried coun­ter­parts typ­i­cal­ly take for grant­ed. Wel­fare rights activists since the 1960s have shown that poli­cies intend­ed to relieve pover­ty end up pun­ish­ing women for not being June Cleaver.

In addi­tion to the patri­ar­chal con­ser­vatism inher­ent in pro-mar­riage ide­ol­o­gy, women face prac­ti­cal bar­ri­ers to get­ting hitched: Black women espe­cial­ly may have trou­ble find­ing long-term male part­ners in com­mu­ni­ties dev­as­tat­ed by mass incar­cer­a­tion. Not to men­tion, some old-fash­ioned types see mar­riage as a mat­ter of con­ju­gal love rather than social engi­neer­ing. Go figure.

Despite the talk of per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty” in wel­fare pol­i­cy, the real bar­ri­ers poor sin­gle moth­ers face are root­ed in pover­ty itself. Accord­ing to a 2002 pol­i­cy paper by Stephanie Coontz and Nan­cy Folbre:

Non-mar­riage is often a result of pover­ty and eco­nom­ic inse­cu­ri­ty rather than the oth­er way around. The qual­i­ty and sta­bil­i­ty of mar­riages mat­ters. Prod­ding cou­ples into mat­ri­mo­ny with­out help­ing them solve prob­lems that make rela­tion­ships pre­car­i­ous could leave them worse off. Two-par­ent fam­i­lies are not immune from the eco­nom­ic stress­es that put chil­dren at risk. More than one third of all impov­er­ished young chil­dren in the U.S. today live with two parents. 

Pew doesn’t direct­ly cri­tique wel­fare reform’s lega­cy, but the research does point to pol­i­cy changes that could help break the cycle of inter­gen­er­a­tional pover­ty. The Earned Income Tax Cred­it, for instance, has helped lift mil­lions of chil­dren out of pover­ty through tar­get­ed income sup­ports. Paid fam­i­ly leave time, sub­si­dized child care, and career train­ing and unem­ploy­ment insur­ance pro­grams that rec­og­nize chal­lenges unique to work­ing sin­gle par­ents, would help move non-mar­ried fam­i­lies toward long-await­ed equity.

Regard­less of what you think about the insti­tu­tion of mar­riage, there’s no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for forc­ing chil­dren to pay an eco­nom­ic penal­ty for their par­ents’ deci­sion to divorce or remain unmar­ried. And a parent’s deci­sion not to tie the knot shouldn’t be an eco­nom­ic shack­le on the next generation.

While our con­cept of the fam­i­ly has grown and diver­si­fied since the days of Mrs. Cleaver, for house­holds striv­ing toward advance­ment, our labor mar­ket and social pol­i­cy remain stuck in the past.

Michelle Chen is a con­tribut­ing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Dis­sent and a co-pro­duc­er of the Bela­bored” pod­cast. She stud­ies his­to­ry at the CUNY Grad­u­ate Cen­ter. She tweets at @meeshellchen.
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