The rhetoric of the GOP has long focused on disguising policy proposals which are truly aimed at advancing its idealized family values as policy proposals aimed at reducing poverty— without, of course, raising any benefits or cutting any costs for the impoverished. Among the more dastardly of these rhetorical schemes by the party is the push to make “single mother” a pejorative term. According to many, child poverty in the United States is advanced by the growth of single mothers, and, to them, this means we need to do something to reduce the number of single mothers. Marco Rubio, an apparent economic dilettante, said that the most effective tool for reducing childhood poverty is one simple word: marriage. In a January speech, Rubio said, “The truth is, the greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government spending program. It’s called marriage [sic].”
It is undoubtedly true that a child who grows up in a single-parent household is more likely to grow up in poverty than a child growing up in a two-parent household, and these statistics are readily available from many research institutions; but is there a direct causal element, or is it simply a correlation? Perhaps more important is the question of whether or not, if one does subscribe to the belief that the rise in single-motherhood causes a rise in poverty, it is wise to further incentivize humans on this planet to marry one another. What kind of tools could one propose to incentivize marriage, and, if you find them, does this mean you are assuming that the majority of unmarried parents (or prospective parents) are unmarried by choice, and that, with government encouragement, their choice will be affected? According to Gallup, an overwhelming majority of americans prefer to be married, and it is obvious that a low-income, single-parent raising children could definitely use the financial support of spouse. Would incentivizing marriage (that is, more so than it currently is given the tax structure of the United States) even work? It seems quite dubious, as, if we assume most people do indeed wish to marry and raise a family in a two-person household, the likely reason people are unmarried is they haven’t met the right person yet. If that’s the case, should we incentivize them to get married anyway? That is, should we encourage people to get married before they are ready to get married? It seems to me that this would be the only possible outcome, as people already want to get married, but for intimately personal reasons, have not. Encouraging marriage might lead to an even higher divorce rate than the U.S. already sees (between 40 and 50 percent), which would inevitably result in more single-parent households. If love, or simply the desire to spend the rest of your life with one specific person, is the driving force of marriage, then the government ought not intervene for very obvious, ominous reasons.
What would Marco Rubio do? Rubio would take the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which currently offers relatively more assistance to a single-parent household than to a two-parent household, and turn it into a “federal wage enhancement” which increases the beneficial impact for marriage-based households. To be clear, this actually removes the relative advantage single-parent households have, so if the argument is that single mothers and the children of single-mother households face more adversity than the rest, the proposition would make it relatively easier for married couples, and, thus, relatively harder for single-parent households. Wait, what? Exactly. As far as I can conceive, this is not incentivizing marriage, the posited answer to all things poverty, it is simply helping out already married couples.
Somehow I’ve gotten this far without comprehensively lambasting the idea that single-motherhood, and not poverty itself, is the actual issue. Again, I’m not disagreeing with the fact that a child is statistically better off in a two-parent household, but is that because of the two-parent part, or is it because of the simple fact that a household headed by two adults is likely to have more money than a household headed by one? I’m inclined to believe the latter. If your inclination tends to the former, then it might be pertinent to inform you that an adult mother is 2.5 times more likely to to live in poverty had she grown in up in a poor, two-parent household than she is had she grown up in a not-poor, single-mother household. It is not marriage that staunches poverty; it’s higher incomes.
A lot of my animosity towards the conservative argument, aside from its lacking in methodological rigor (i.e. its inability to distinguish between correlation and causation), stems from the singling-out of single-mothers, or, rather, the singling out of women in general. Why doesn’t Marco Rubio (or Ted Cruz, The Heritage Foundation, or Fox News) ever use the term “single-parent” in lieu of “single-mother”? To be sure, single-father households are much less likely to be of an impoverished status than a single-mother household, so the statistical correlation rings true more specifically with females. The reason for this is because single-motherhood is on the rise, and conservatives yearn for a world in which everyone is married to a member of the opposite sex—and, if someone is single, successful, and raising a child, it better be a man.
Ted Cruz talks about single mothers at the diner. A lot.
According to Ted Cruz, single mothers are necessarily waitresses (necessarily at a diner), which perpetuates the conservative argument that single-motherhood is awful, and that no one wants it. What does that mean for a successful women who would like to raise a child but has not found the right partner yet, or better yet, does not wish to marry at all? Is there anything wrong with her having a child? Obviously for me the answer is no. The underlying problem is that women earn less than men, they face greater adversity than men, and if there is a bad relationship resulting in an unintended child, they are likely to be the one raising him or her. This is not a problem of marriage; it’s a problem of social and cultural biases which make life easier for men, and it’s a problem of humans in the U.S. not being able to earn enough to support children. If conservatives want to end single-motherhood, then, unless someone can tell me how this would work in a way that doesn’t escalate the problem, or that it is definitively part of the problem, I refuse to believe that they are doing so for the sake of reducing poverty instead of simply promoting their idealized values. The real solutions involve financial support to lower income households, regardless of relationship status, but the GOP doesn’t like redistribution of wealth, so they’ll continue singling out women instead.