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Single Parent = Poor Child? March 18, 2009

Posted by Kate Ryan in Abortion, Contraception, Economy, Politics, popular culture, Women's Issues.
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Bristol Palin and Child
Bristol Palin and Child

The other day Bristol Palin, America’s most famous teen-aged mother, announced that she and Levi Johnston will not be marrying as planned.  Johnston, the father of Palin’s child,  said that “he is just not mature enough” to be married and a father.  Though I would have guessed that anyone who only a year ago  identified himself as a “fuckin’ redneck”  on Myspace did not have great gifts for introspection, I give Johnston credit for recognizing his shortcomings. 

At least Bristol will be able to raise her child at her parents’ home where she will undoubtedly receive lots of help and support.  Her mother, Sarah Palin – Governor of Alaska and Republican VP nominee – can help Bristol parent her child with good old red state values including abstinence-only sex education.  They can discuss all the choices that Bristol had and has that they are unwilling to offer other teenage and unwed moms around the country.

The reason I began thinking of Bristol, Levi, Sarah, and baby Tripp was an AP article I just read.  There were a record number of children born in the U.S. last year and the rate of births to unwed mothers reached 40% – an all time high.  About  75% of the unwed births were to women older than 20 years of age – reflecting the shifting cultural mores of women in their 30’s and 40’s unwilling to wait for marriage to have children.  Studies also show that the U.S. abortion rate is down to its lowest levels in decades – also an indicator that the social stigma of single parenthood is fading.

But is that necessarily a good thing – the best thing – for the children and their mothers?

A 2003 study in Social Problems found that women who were single when they had their first child are between 2 and 2.7 times more likely to live in poverty, even after controlling for race, family background, age, education and employment status.  Many other studies show that a child growing up in a single-parent household, especially if the household is headed by a woman, is statistically more likely to grow up in poverty.   In 2008, the U.S. Census bureau estimated that a parent with one child would need to earn a minimum of $14,291 per year just to get by.  That is the official poverty line – about $7.00 per hour for 40 hours per week.  No sick days.  No vacation.  According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, however, the real amount to stay out of poverty is $28,582 per year, or about twice what the U.S. Census bureau advises.  This amount makes the parent “working poor.”

Because the official poverty index is so unrealistic and income limits are too low, there are families all across America who do not make enough to pay for housing, food, transportation, and medical care — but who earn “too much” to qualify for government assistance.  Approximately 67% of single-parent homes fall into the “poor” or “working poor” classification.  Only 26% of two-parent families find themselves so situated.  When the growth in child-poverty is compared against the growth in single-parent households, the correlation is visible and stunning. 

Just as important to this issue is the ability of the child raised in poverty to escape his or her poverty.  Because of the rising economic inequality in the United States, the Horatio Alger “rags to riches” story is largely becoming a myth.  If rich is defined as the top 5% of earners, then that would be about $250,000 per year in the U.S.  A child born in the bottom 95% has a LESS THAN 1% change of ever making it into the wealthy class.  If you are born poor, that is in the lowest 5% of the income scale, there is a 47% chance that you and your children will remain in that quintile.  If you’re African-American, your chances of remaining poor rise to 63%.  The United States had one of the lowest levels of inter-generational mobility in the wealthy world, on a par with Britain but way behind most of Europe.  In Britain, 30% of all children are now born into poverty.

There are many things that the United States can do to mitigate child poverty and wealth mobility.   We could raise  limits for income assistance, provide good day-care, increase food assistance, increase education assistance, and provide more affordable housing.  That would certainly help some single parents to focus on their educations and own mobility to be able to provide more for their children. 

All of that , however, does not address single parenthood.   Though nobody is eager to return to the bad old days of shame and ostracism for single parents, we need to do more as a nation to discourage it.  We need to provide comprehensive sex education – including contraception and condoms – to all school children before they become sexually active.    According to the AP, single women are much less savvy about birth control than they think. Nearly half of survey respondents said they don’t seek out information on preventing pregnancy because they know enough already. Yet when the National Campaign tested the same group on their knowledge, women scored 6 out of 11 on average and men a dismal 4.7. Why no urgent need to be informed? Researchers found that women are often passive or ambivalent about getting pregnant, with more than one in four saying, “If it happens, it happens” or “It would be no big deal.”

We need to emphasize two-parent families as the optimum for raising children, not with an emphasis on a Palin-style shotgun marriage – but with the emphasis on not getting pregnant before one is ready to be in a stable relationship.




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