What Poor Women Need Is ... Marriage?

For several years, sociologists and demographers have been discussing a new socioeconomic division in this country: the widening family divide between the highly educated and everyone else. On one side are those who get at least a bachelor's degree—or wait even longer—before they marry and have children. On the other side are those without a college education who have children—early and often—and have a series of partners (with or without marriage) who may or may not be related to their children. In the second group, an unexpected pregnancy may interrupt the woman's education; sometimes she wasn't going on anyway. 

The first set of families—call them "blue" families, because they cluster in those states—tend to be stable, maritally and financially, which is extremely helpful for the children's well-being. The "red" families are far more chaotic, emotionally and financially. The children's family configurations shift around them, with parental figures coming and going; the parents don't have much education, and therefore not much income; they slip periodically into poverty when a parent disappears or their now-and-again single mother's income isn't enough to feed and house them securely, in part because women's income, even more than men's, bounces along at poverty's floor. 

So, for instance, highly educated Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the country, while Arkansas, which has one of the nation's lowest college-graduation rates, also has the highest divorce rate in the country. And guess which families' children are most likely to ascend to and remain firmly in the middle class?  

Over the weekend, Jason deParle at The New York Times illustrated this newly developing class and family divide by profiling the lives of two women and their families in a thoughtful and in-depth article, "Two Classes, Divided by 'I Do.'" Without judgment, he shows the results of the different choices and situations each woman finds herself presented with. One woman, Chris Faulkner, finishes college before she marries, and then has children; those children are financially stable and involved in a wide range of enriching activities. The other woman, Jessica Schairer, gets pregnant in college, drops out, tries to make a go of it with her loser boyfriend, and ends up a single mother of three children by the age of 30. The two women work together in a childcare center, but of course, the married woman's children have the benefit of a man's wages, while the single woman's children have to get by on a service-industry job's bottom-scraping hourly wage. 

There's been a lot of criticism of the way deParle frames the article: Is marriage really the key divide here? Katha Pollitt is, as usual, wickedly pointed in her critique, asking, "Do we really need a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times to tell us that a woman with a college degree and a good solid marriage is better off than a college dropout raising three kids alone?" She goes on to slice apart the idea that Chris Faulkner was smart to make her man shape up and turn into a good father while Jessica Schairer was foolish to stick around waiting to see if her man would do the same: 

Well, if only we could ... put great big Good Guy and Bad Guy signs on young men so that naïve college girls could tell which slacker boys are exploitive louts and which ones just need a nudge to become prime husband material.

Katha similarly takes her knife to the idea, which she finds implicit in the piece (I didn't), that Jessica lacked good moral values:

[You could see] Jessica as having too many of those values: she rejected abortion, she stuck by her man, she tried too hard to make a family. If we really want women like Jessica to avoid early childbearing and single motherhood, we have to stop promoting outmoded ideas about sex and gender: abstinence-only sex ed, shame that leads to inconsistent use of birth control, stigmatizing abortion, woman’s worth depending on keeping a man, “fixing” the relationship as woman’s responsibility, motherhood as women’s primary purpose in life.

The first issues that jumped out at me were, rather, the absurd mismatch between women's and men's wages, and between jobs with and without decent benefits. I agree with Shawn Fremstad at CEPR, who takes on the problem this way:

  • Why is OK to pay the mostly female workers who take care of other people's children and of seniors and people with disabilities so little? (Average wages for workers in care occupations are less than half of average wages for workers overall: for child care workers, average annual wages are $21,320 compared with $45,230 for workers overall. And, it's not just about education—nearly half of all child care workers have either some college or a college degree).
  • After an operation for cervical cancer, Shairer wasn't able to take the time off recommended by her doctor because it would have been unpaid. Why is it OK to not provide the vast majority of care workers with basic employment benefits like paid sick and disabilty leave? Do you want a worker who is ill caring for your children just because they can't afford to take unpaid leave? (Just 27 percent of child-care workers have access to paid sick leave. By comparison, among workers in the top quartile of the wage distribution, 90 percent have paid sick leave, and lots of other benefits.)
  • Both Mr. Faulkner and Ms. Faulker have 4-year college degrees and, except for their gender difference, appear to be demographically similar. Why does he, a computer programmer, earn more than twice as much as she does as a manager/director of a child care center? 

Why, for God's sake, do half the country's workers have no paid sick days? (Check out Gloria Steinem's campaign for mandatory paid sick days in New York City here.) That's just appalling. No one in the policy-making class faces this issue, because the higher-income jobs all have paid sick leave. Even if Jessica had someone else's income to lean on, the family would still have taken a hit if she had stayed home. 

And how much of this divide is because of the disappearance of good jobs for working-class men? Men who don't have an income are less likely to marry. 

I've seen, close up, how much the chaos of red families can hurt the children. All the studies show that it is better for children to have two stable parents in a low-conflict partnership, who together have enough income to support the family and provide some extras. The parents can juggle responsibilities, which means each of them can work harder in their respective jobs and make it further while still attending to the children. They have more money and are less likely to be poor. That doesn't mean a mother should remain with a bad mate; a high-conflict marriage, a violent marriage, a marriage to an alcoholic or drug addict can drag the children into misery and, in the language of the social scientists, lead to "bad outcomes"—more impulsiveness, less success in school, worse health, and all the rest. I don't know that the key divide is marriage; the divide seems to be an impulsive or accidental pregnancy early in a woman's life, which interrupts her education or career progress (and yes, I'm calling childcare and other service-industry work a career) and keeps her stalled at the level she was living in during her poorest and least-stable years.

Since we're not going to turn back the clock on sexually active teenagers, we need more widely available contraception—can you say "over-the-counter Plan B"?—and more easily available early-term abortion. That would help those children who do arrive on the planet have a better chance at thriving. "Women's" caregiving jobs need to be paid a family wage, since the reality is that they are supporting families—and since families like mine won't be able to afford childcare or eldercare if those workers are paid more, as a society, we need to underwrite those workers' wages. Finally, we need mandatory paid sick leave laws, and health insurance that travels with you whether or not you have a job. 

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