Don’t Let Anyone Blame Single Mothers for Economic Inequality

The inequality debate shouldn’t hinge on single mothers.

Shutterstock/Semmick Photo

When it comes to talking about economic inequality, conservatives generally aren’t too comfy discussing how skyrocketing CEO pay and Wall Street lucre have concentrated income among America’s tip-top earners. They are, however, extremely at home talking about families—namely, single mothers, and how the dissolution of the two-parent household model has set back the middle and working classes.

In that vein, the American Enterprise Institute has released a new report, “For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America.” (I spoke about it on a panel earlier today). The paper’s goal is to put marriage in the center of the public discussion about inequality and opportunity. And its point, to simplify a bit, is that marriage is really, really great. It’s good for men, who tend to make more when they’re hitched. It’s good for women, who end up with higher household income. It’s great for children, who generally fare better in life when raised by married parents. In fact, the report argues that whether or not someone grows up with both parents predicts about as much about their future income as race.  

Social scientists can debate whether marriage actually turns men into more responsible, ambitious, and higher-earning individuals (as some have argued), or whether responsible, ambitious, and potentially higher-earning men are just more likely to get married. But common sense tells us that the truth lies somewhere in between. You can debate whether family income or family structure plays a more important role in shaping kids, but I think most people would agree that two parents are preferable to one. Raising children solo is an insanely difficult undertaking. Life isn’t an episode of Gilmore Girls.

But I’m also skeptical about efforts to turn the inequality debate toward single mothers and absent fathers—because, in the end, it’s simply not driving the changes in the economy we’re experiencing today. As Timothy Noah wrote in Slate years ago, the biggest changes in American family structure took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and they help explain why, for instance, the ratio between the 90th percentile of earners and 10th percentile is higher than it was 30 years ago. But the shift away from two-parent households doesn’t really factor into the concentration of wealth among the 1 percent. And the rise of the 1 percent, and the 0.1 percent for that matter, is the real story when it comes to how income inequality is evolving today.

Conservatives will point to recent research showing that economic mobility is stronger in places with fewer single mothers. But that same work also shows that mobility has been weak for decades. The notion that Horatio Alger stories are just myths isn’t new. But the share of the economy that the rich are chewing up is relatively new.

Single mothers and fragile families are a fact of American life, and we certainly need to find better ways to support them. But that discussion isn’t a substitute for grappling with the rise of the 1 percent.