Marriage and Inequality

Lindsay Beyerstein

The usually excellent poverty journalist Jason DeParle really disappoints in his latest feature for the New York Times in which he blames unwed mothers for inequality and quotes Charles Bell Curve” Murray with a straight face.

DeParle profiles two women who work together at the same day care. They both come from lower-middle class families in the Midwest. They both dropped out of college. One of them got married and then had kids. The other had three kids with a man she never married.

By emphasizing how much these good friends have in common, right down to their matching tattoos, DeParle implies that marriage was the crucial difference between them. The married mom lives in a middle class suburb and sends her kids to swimming and karate lessons. The single mom lives on food stamps. DeParle argues that rising rates of single motherhood in the middle class are a major source of inequality.

Some people I’ve discussed this story with deny that DeParle is making any particular argument. It’s a reported piece, they say. Indeed, it is. But the juxtaposition of the winner” and loser” separated by marrital status makes it pretty clear where DeParle stands.

[Jessica Schairer, the single mom] got pregnant during her first year of college, left school and stayed in a troubled relationship that left her with three children when it finally collapsed six years ago. She has had little contact with the children’s father and receives no child support.

[…]

William Penn University, eight hours away in Iowa, offered a taste of independence and a spot on the basketball team. Her first thought when she got pregnant was My mother’s going to kill me.” Abortion crossed her mind, but her boyfriend, an African-American student from Arkansas, said they should start a family. They agreed that marriage should wait until they could afford a big reception and a long gown.

Their odds were not particularly good: nearly half the unmarried parents living together at a child’s birth split up within five years, according to Child Trends.

It seems like DeParle is asking the wrong question. He notes that nearly half of cohabitating unmarried parents break up within 5 years, but he doesn’t say how often the shotgun marriages of young couples break up. I bet the numbers are similarly dismal.

Jessica Schairer, the single mom, didn’t intend to raise her kids on her own. Her boyfriend talked her into keeping their first baby. He convinced her that he wanted to start a family with her.

It seems unlikely that a marriage ceremony would have made any difference. For one thing, they were both very young, and early marriage is one of the strongest predictors of divorce. Secondly, they stayed together for years. Jessica hooked up with him in college and she didn’t leave him until she was 25. She left because he was useless and abusive. The problem is that they stayed together too long, not that they didn’t stick it out for life. If they’d been married, Jessica would have ended up supporting a deadbeat husband and three children. Supporting five people on $25,000 a year is even harder than supporting four.

DeParle implies that the married mom, Chris Faulkner, got a better deal in life because she wouldn’t marry her boyfriend, Kevin, until he went back to college and got his life together. Of course, without a control group, we don’t know whether he would have gotten his life together if they’d had a kid first and gotten married later.

It’s pure magical thinking to suppose that marriage would have transformed Jessica’s boyfriend into a decent partner and father. If three children didn’t give him the impetus he needed to grow up and get his life together, marriage didn’t stand a chance.

Unplanned pregnancies can be very disruptive for young people trying to establish themselves. Jessica probably would have dumped her loser boyfriend a lot sooner if she hadn’t had kids with him. In retrospect, Chris and Kevin probably had a better shot at happiness because they chose to build a life together, rather than rushing to get married because they were expecting a baby.

But to what extent was Jessica a casualty of the marriage-at-all-costs model that social conservatives are trying to sustain on life support? She stayed with a horrible guy because he convinced her he wanted to start a family, and ultimately get married. Her life might have been a lot easier if she’d either gotten an abortion and finished college, or cut her losses and had the baby on her own. Instead she stayed with the same loser for two more kids. She was being abused and exploited, but at least she wasn’t a single mom.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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