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Surge in unwed mothers: Deep in the stats, it's not what you think

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Melanie Stetson Freeman

(Read caption) Unwed mothers: Pundits sounding off on new Census data are forgetting about unmarried-but-together parents, like Lena Bushrod, left, and her boyfriend, who are raising their daughter, Alaina, pictured here on January 26, 2012, in Virginia.

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Social critics are aflutter this week, with the release of a report from the US Census Bureau showing that 62 percent of new moms in their early 20s are unmarried. The report also found that 36 percent of all moms were unwed in 2011, up from 31 percent in 2005. In families with incomes of less than $10,000, that number goes up to 69 percent. 

This is troubling news, according to pundits on both sides of the political spectrum. Single moms are one of the most disadvantaged groups in the US – nearly 30 percent of their families live under the poverty line, according to the US Census, as compared with 6.2 percent of families with married parents. 

Those on the right tend to frame these perils in terms of deteriorating values and a growing disregard for marriage. (Married parents are statistically way better off, as are their kids.)

On the left, the worry about single moms is transferred into demands for improved social safety nets and economic gender equity. (Raise pay for women, give better maternity leave and sick day policies, get government helping out more with child care, and all of a sudden the economic disparity between married and non-married moms drops.) 

Indeed, the question of how to help single moms should be front and center for US policy makers. Children of single mothers are at higher risk than their married-family peers for a variety of social ills, from impoverishment to poor academic achievement to incarceration.

But here’s the issue: To delve straight from the new report into the single mom debate misses a significant part of the family picture. 

That part of the picture where Mommy and Daddy are both there, smiling for the camera, but without wedding rings.

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