The Conservative War on Single Mothers Like Jessica Schairer

Jul 19, 2012June CarboneNaomi Cahn

Conservatives want to have their cake and eat it too: decry the rise in nonmarital births but make life even harder for women facing single motherhood.

Ever wonder what the “war on women” is really about? An article in the New York Times, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’: For Richer Marriage, for Poorer, Single Motherhood,” provides some clues. The article documents the growing class divide in family form. College graduates like Chris and Kevin Faulkner, who were profiled in the article, postpone starting families, produce marriages with lower divorce rates than a generation ago, and reap the rewards in terms of greater time and resources to invest in children. In the meantime, women like Jessica Schairer who do not graduate from college, also profiled in the article, are increasingly raising children on their own. These women often give up on the men in their lives and struggle to balance the demands of low-paying jobs with the attention their children need.

The article presents a compelling portrait of the causes and the effects, but not of the partisan divide over the potential solutions. That divide can be summed up by a struggle over a simple question: are women like the single mother, Jessica Schairer, the victims of our economy or the problem? Those who see them as the problem are setting forth proposals to make their lives (and their children’s lives) worse. Those of us who see Jessica Schairer as a victim of increasing economic inequality recognize that supporting her ability to care for her children is critical to the strength of the country’s next generation. The political war for the future of Jessica Schairer is under way.

The change in family structure is a consequence of growing economic inequality that further increases inequality in the next generation of children. The most startling change is the increase in non-marital births. In 1990, just 10 percent of white women with some college education had a birth outside of marriage; today the figure is 30 percent, compared to 8 percent of whites with a college degree and 40 percent for the country as a whole. Meanwhile, 86 percent of black high school dropouts have children outside of marriage. The likelihood that a child will be raised in a two-parent family has become a marker of class.

The Times article documents the consequences of this change, as it describes the limited ability of single parents to pay for sports participation, attend school events, stay on top of homework, and provide adequate role models. Harvard’s Robert Putnam adds that the growing class gap in childrearing affects everything from the time parents spend playing patty-cake with their pre-schoolers to the likelihood that a high school senior will be the captain of a sports team.

In considering the causes of class divergence, the Times articles documents a negative spiral. It observes that economic woes speed marital decline “as women see fewer marriageable men.” Women do not commit to men without steady employment, and a shortage of “good men” encourages the employed to play the field. A long list of academic studies demonstrates that when marriageable women outnumber the men, everyone’s norms change and marriage rates decline. For single mom Jessica Schairer, as for many other women today, there was no point to marrying the father of her three children. Instead, for her the issue is “why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned so little, berated her often and did no parenting.” On the other hand, marriage also encourages men to shape up. Kevin Faulkner, the married father in the story, explained that he returned to college because he wanted to get married. Other studies show that not only has the premium for college graduates increased over the last generation, but the job stability of less educated men has fallen more than for other parts of the population and male layoffs often break up relationships and discourage marriage.

While the documentation of these differences is now well established, the solutions are not. Yet there are two obvious ones, rarely discussed in explicit terms. The first recreates the links between stable jobs and stable families. This requires greater economic equality, more opportunities for blue-collar men, more family-friendly workplaces, greater support for higher education and job training, and better access to contraception and other supports for delaying family formation. A growing literature suggests that greater equality itself creates virtuous cycles that deter teen births and encourage longer lasting family relationships.

The alternative? Bring back patriarchy. Conservatives like Charles Murray blame changing values, charging that the men have gotten lazy because women no longer depend on them or fail to sleep with them until they shape up. The secret to bringing back female dependence and male virtue? Make the women desperate. Murray has made a career of blaming government programs such as welfare for the destruction of the American family because such programs cushion the impact of single parenthood. For conservatives who see single mothers like Jessica Schairer as the problem and who refuse to see inequality itself as the explanation, the result is a war on women.

Virtually every conservative Republican, from Paul Ryan’s budget to Mitt Romney’s platform, would cut the benefits on which single mothers like Jessica Schairer currently depend. Indeed, shortly after Romney’s NAACP speech, he commented, “Remind them of this: If they want more free stuff from government, tell them to go vote for the other guy.” What could Romney have meant by “free stuff?”

First, start with food stamps. They are an important part of Jessica Schairer’s ability to feed three children on an income of $25,000 a year. Romney’s proposals would either force 13 million people off of food stamps entirely or cut benefits by $2000 per year per family.

Second, Romney’s budget would produce massive cuts in Medicaid programs that serve as the most important source of health care for working mothers without adequate benefits. 

Third, Romney’s tax proposals would raise Jessica Schairer’s taxes while providing for massive cuts for those with high incomes. 

Whether or not Romney specifically intends to make the lives of single mothers more perilous, his policies would do exactly that.

Social conservatives, in the meantime, have taken aim at the reproductive rights that make it possible for women to avoid inopportune births. The class divide in access to contraception and abortion is wide and growing. The Guttmacher Institute reports that between 1994 and 2006, the unintended pregnancy rate grew by 50 percent for women below the poverty line. During the same period, it fell by 29 percent for higher income women. Yet those who share Charles Murray’s sentiments about single mothers have done their best to make it worse.

For many of us, this is the most perplexing part of the war on Jessica Schairer, and it rests on conservatives’ analysis that the key to reforming the family is to deny men sex rather than prevent births. Indeed, Republican candidate Rick Santorum linked the increase in non-marital births to the “dangers of contraception,” which he categorized as "a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be."

We noted in Red Families v. Blue Families that most conservatives do not oppose contraception per se, but they remain resolutely against the implied approval of non-marital sex that would accompany explicit support and the government subsidies necessary to make access more universal. In the name of religious liberty, they accordingly raised a furor over President Obama’s recent proposal to mandate employer coverage of contraception as preventive health care. With less publicity, they blocked inclusion of proposals to increase contraceptive access in the stimulus bill. And they defeated efforts to include contraception in any form as part of the health care package. Yet poor women’s lack of health care coverage is a major factor in the unplanned pregnancy rate.

If contraceptive access is controversial, abortion is off the table. Ms. Schairer considered one in response to the unplanned pregnancy that derailed her college education, but the father of her children opposed it. The Guttmacher Institute notes that the women most likely to end an unintended pregnancy by abortion are those who, like Ms. Schairer, are in college at the time of the pregnancy. Had Ms. Schairer not given birth when she did, she would have been much more likely to graduate, to avoid a non-marital birth, and to be able to secure a better job. But at the same time conservatives work to make life more difficult for mothers like Jessica Schairer, they argue that having the child is the only acceptable moral option.

For a generation now, Murray, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, and many other conservatives have denied that inequality has anything to do with the changing family. Romney has joined the chorus, dismissing any discussion of inequality as “envy” and “class warfare.” It is time to recognize the truth. The policies they have championed are responsible for the class-based division in family form. The war on Jessica Schairer is claiming an increasing number of victims. 

June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. She is the author of numerous books and law review articles on gender and family law.

Cahn and Carbone are the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families.

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