"Unmarried moms are rarer in America than France, Sweden, New Zealand, the UK, or the Netherlands" screams yesterday's headline by Matthew Yglesias on vox.com.
"And honestly, it's no big deal," sighs an exasperated Swiss friend of mine, weary of conservative American Facebook memes. Unmarried mothers apparently do just fine in Switzerland (though admittedly the Swiss rate of 20.2 percent of births to unmarried women is considerably lower than the American rate of 40.7 percent).
Actually, though, it is a big deal in the United States, for several reasons.
1. An unmarried mother is not necessarily a single parent, and America has a higher percentage of single parents than any of those other countries.
Some couples choose not to marry, but they raise their children together. They are unmarried, but they are not single parents. Others marry briefly, but they divorce while their children are small. They become single parents.
The majority of children in France and Sweden are now born to unmarried mothers, but only about 20 percent live in single-parent families. Compare that to the United States, where more than 40 percent of children are born to unmarried mothers, and about 30 percent live in single-parent families. America may have fewer unmarried mothers than France or Sweden, but it has half again as many single parents — and being a single parent isn't easy.
2. Single parents fare better in countries whose policies support working women than in the one developed country — the United States — whose policies don't.
And not just single parents. As Judith Warner details in an excellent New York Times piece published yesterday, women fare better in countries and states that mandate paid family leave (including maternity leave) and sick days; and that provide affordable early childhood education, child care, and workplace flexibility for all workers, not just highly paid professionals.
In other words, women in general — and single parents in particular — fare far worse in America than in any other developed country, because the United States is the only developed country that does not provide at least some of these benefits to all who need them.
3. America's haphazard family policies and programs have led to America's high rate of economic inequality.
Ms. Warner's article is titled "To Reduce Inequality, Start with Families." We Americans, to our shame, have failed to support families, and our inequality score is 41 on the Gini scale (where 0 is perfect equality and 100 is perfect inequality) — worse than that of France (33), Sweden (25), New Zealand (36), the United Kingdom (36), the Netherlands (31), or Switzerland (34). "If we want to strike at the roots of inequality in America," Ms. Warner writes:
we’ve got to start at its source, in the family, at the very beginning of children’s lives. We have to make it possible for mothers — two-thirds of whom are now breadwinners or co-breadwinners for their families — to stay in the work force without the sort of family-related job interruptions that can greatly limit their lifetime earnings and even push some families into bankruptcy. We need to make it possible for all parents to give their kids the kind of head start that is increasingly becoming an exclusive birthright of the well-off.
4. As long as Americans refuse to provide the social supports that allow women to flourish, single-parent families — 86 percent of whom are headed by females — will continue to bear the brunt of economic inequality.
On April 20, the same day that Matt Yglesias listed unmarried motherhood statistics and Judith Warner's piece appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal published an article headlined "Ignoring an Inequality Culprit: Single-Parent Families." In it, Robert Maranto wrote that "the strongest statistical correlate of inequality in the United States" is "the rise of single-parent families during the past half century." If only we could persuade poor people and racial minorities to get married, he seems to think, poverty would decrease, upward mobility would increase, and we would solve all manner of emotional, psychological, educational, economic, and behavioral problems.
To be sure, growing up in a two-parent family is a child's best hedge against poverty, not only in America but in the other OECD countries as well (even Switzerland). But the reality is that a high percentage of children around the world are growing up in single-parent homes.
And the shameful reality is that if those children are American, they will suffer more than they would if they were French, Swedish, British, Swiss, Kiwi, or Dutch. In spite of the fact that many Americans think America is a Christian nation. In spite of repeated biblical admonitions to care for families without husbands and fathers.
LaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust and reviews books for various magazines.