In her recent Washington Post opinion piece, “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms,” Isabel Sawhill argues that the government should “support local programs and nonprofit organizations working to reduce early, unwed childbearing through teen-pregnancy prevention efforts, family planning, greater opportunities for disadvantaged youth or programs to encourage responsible relationships.” While I wholeheartedly agree, the logic behind her argument begs for examination.
Invoking Dan Quayle and his Murphy Brown blunder is an anachronism because his anxiety was grounded in the fact that single motherhood was a “lifestyle choice” that “mocked the importance of fathers”—and the 20 years since then has produced an abundance of research that debunks both of these assumptions. Sawhill argues that single motherhood is a choice “once associated with poverty” that has become mainstream, but perhaps it is poverty that has become mainstream. It is easy to connect the dots from single parenthood to poverty, and then to a host of harmful educational and occupational child outcomes. These outcomes will then decrease the likelihood that these children will go on to form nuclear families in adulthood, which renders the logic that they will make a lifestyle choice flawed.
The authors of Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage found that poor, unmarried women who have children view partnered parenting as the optimum, but access to marriageable partners is meager and not a compelling reason to forgo the cultural appeal of family life. At the same time, it is misguided to conflate single motherhood with unmarried mothers. The portion of children born out of wedlock is on the rise, but the portion of female-headed households is far greater as a result of a steady 50% divorce rate. Therefore, ideologies that posit marriage as the panacea for poverty fail to recognize that there is no ubiquitous definition of marriage or acknowledge that there is no real world evidence of this assumption.
Hypothetical matchmaking cannot account for the variables that researchers have found to increase the chances that marriages will last. It is simply not reasonable to assume that if a single mother got married—to anyone with a pulse and an income—that the result would be anything other than disastrous.
If the traditional nuclear family is most evident amongst the college educated, this is because the formation and maintenance of this family form is the result of privilege. The cost of raising children has risen to require more than one income, and the advantage of several incomes—particularly from earners with stronger wage power—is the source of the economic disparities between family forms. Therefore, it is the demands of the economy that generates poverty in single mothers (who earn between 72% and 81% for comparable labor to men), and the causal order of poverty and single motherhood requires examination.
It is distressing to read evidence that old-fashioned standpoints persist, particularly when they are bolstered by a narrative that became an absurdity within weeks after it was uttered. Researchers published in the Journal of Marriage and Family argue that it is easy to engage in victim blaming with single mothers when the voices of single mothers are silenced by this kind of rhetoric, which is why continued research is essential. I have been studying single mothers for a much shorter time than Sawhill, but I have experienced single motherhood since the same year that Dan Quayle induced the family values meme by censuring an imaginary person. However, the sociopolitical aftermath that my family was subjected to was anything but imaginary. My path to single motherhood was a response to the urgent need of my children’s well-being, and it certainly was not a response to trends. I was forced to make a lifestyle decision; lifestyle choice was not an option.
I agree with Dr. Sawhill’s position that support, family planning, and opportunity are required to alleviate the inequalities that emerge from chance. What must be recognized is that such efforts would be rendered futile if delivered with the brand of contempt that reverberates Dan Quayle.
Perry Threlfall is a doctoral student of Sociology at George Mason University. She has co-authored several peer reviewed research articles that explore the factors that impact single mothers. She is currently investigating the role that social support networks play in the persistence of single mothers seeking higher education. She has been teaching Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Maryland, College Park, for the past several years and looks forward to one day writing a book that provides a comprehensive view of all single mother research so the public will better understand one of the fastest growing demographic groups in the country.
This article originally appeared on Role/Reboot, June 1, 2012