Liberal victories in the sexual and women’s rights revolutions – victories that have made the lives of many upscale Democrats more productive and satisfying — appear, from the vantage point of the white working class, to have left many women to struggle as single parents, forced to cope with both male defection from paternal responsibility and the fragmentation of a family structure that was crucial to upward mobility in the postwar period.
This bleak view emerges from two recently published works, “Labor’s Love Lost,” by Andrew Cherlin, a professor of public policy at Johns Hopkins, and “Was Moynihan Right? What Happens to the Children of Unmarried Mothers,” a research report by Sara McLanahan and Christopher Jencks, sociologists at Princeton and Harvard, respectively.
“The young adults without bachelor’s degrees who are the heirs of the industrial working class today are not a cultural vanguard confidently leading the way toward a postmodern family lifestyle,” Cherlin writes. “Rather, they are a group making constrained choices.”
The rise of single parenting – while freeing some men or women, willingly or unwillingly, from the constrictions of relationships that had begun to chafe — has substantial consequences. The research paper co-authored by McLanahan and Jencks buttresses Cherlin’s argument, providing evidence to support the contention thatChildren growing up with a single mother are exposed to more family instability and complexity, they have more behavior problems, and they are less likely to finish high school or attend college than children raised by both of their parents.
More specifically, McLanahan and Jencks provide data showing that growing up with one parent reduces chances of graduating high school by 40 percent and that father-absence “increases antisocial behavior, such as aggression, rule breaking, delinquency, and illegal drug use.”
These findings have been replicated by other scholars. In 2011, Robert Crosnoe, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and Elizabeth Wildsmith, a researcher at ChildTrends, found that:Rising rates of nonmarital fertility are intricately linked to socioeconomic stratification. On one hand, women of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to have children outside marriage. On the other, children born outside of marriage fare worse on numerous developmental indicators than their peers, disrupting their own eventual socioeconomic attainment. In this way, nonmarital fertility is a channel for the intergenerational transmission of socioeconomic inequality.Separately, McLanahan has written in “Fragile Families and the Reproduction of Poverty” that:In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that nonmarital childbearing and marital dissolution were undermining the progress of African Americans. I argue that what Moynihan identified as a race-specific problem in the 1960s has now become a class-based phenomena as well. Using data from a new birth cohort study, I show that unmarried parents come from much more disadvantaged populations than married parents. I further argue that nonmarital childbearing reproduces class and racial disparities through its association with partnership instability and multi-partnered fertility. These processes increase maternal stress and mental health problems, reduce the quality of mothers’ parenting, reduce paternal investments, and ultimately lead to poor outcomes in children. Finally, by spreading fathers’ contributions across multiple households, partnership instability and multi-partnered fertility undermine the importance of individual fathers’ contributions of time and money which is likely to affect the future marriage expectations of both sons and daughters.