Today’s NY Times has a great analysis of the greatly increasing role marriage plays in class inequality in the U.S.
Forty years ago, the top and middle income thirds had virtually identical family patterns: more than 95 percent of households with children in either tier had two parents in the home.
I grew up very near the bottom of that middle income third, but I grew up with both my parents in a house they owned. We moved a lot, because they would buy run-down homes, fix them up in their spare time, and move to another run-down home in a better neighborhood. As a result, I had some pretty good teachers in high school, and I went off to MIT on a needs-based scholarship.
Forty years ago, at MIT, I met my first husband. Ninety-five percent of children in the top two-thirds of the nation economically lived with both their parents then. Five years later, I became a mother, and our son was one of the lucky 95%. Nine years after that, when we had probably reached that upper third of incomes, his father died, and he got to experience the lot of the other 5%, but with a great running start. We owned a house. I had had plenty of support advancing in my professional career and getting more education. And we were entitled to his father’s life insurance and Social Security surviving child benefits, which exceeded what most children of divorced parents received from their living non-custodial parent.
Since then the groups have diverged, according to Mr. Western and Ms. Shollenberger: 88 percent at the top have two parents, but just 71 percent do in the middle.
The article contrasts two mothers who work together:
The secret to their success resides in part in old-fashioned math: strength in numbers. Together, the Faulkners earn nearly three times as much as what Ms. Faulkner earns alone. Their high five-figure income ranks them near the 75th percentile — hardly rich, but better off than nearly three of four families with children.
For Ms. Schairer, the logic works in reverse. Her individual income of $24,500 puts her at the 49th percentile among parents: smack in the middle. But with only one paycheck, her family income falls to the 19th percentile, lagging more than four out of five.
And it’s not just money. It’s time. When my husband died, I had to work harder to deal with the income loss. At the same time, our son needed twice as much of my time for attending baseball games and school events, and household chores needed twice as much, too.
It’s wisdom, too. Without a second adult watching his back, our son was stuck with my best guess about how to handle every situation that arose. And with my time-pressed, sleep-deprived temper. And with my need for intelligent conversation about something other than my job.
And it’s character strengths: creativity, kindness, gratitude, leadership, courage, etc. We all excel in four or five. With two parents, a child gets first-hand training from a master in up to ten different strengths.
How did Ms. Schairer end up a single mom? She got pregnant in college.
Abortion crossed her mind, but her boyfriend…said they should start a family. They agreed that marriage should wait until they could afford a big reception and a long gown.
If you have kids, you probably know how long that will take.
Their odds were not particularly good: nearly half the unmarried parents living together at a child’s birth split up within five years, according to Child Trends.
Should she have married him when they were pregnant with the first of their three children? Probably not. He did not turn out to be very responsible or good with kids. And I am guessing she could tell this before they ever had sex together, and certainly before they conceived their second and third kids.
But please, let us get the word out to our current crop of high school and college students that marriage matters to your kids’ future chances. Date as if you’re choosing someone to turn 60 with. Protect your future kids against single parenthood. And if you did not observe how to sustain a great marriage during your childhood, learn how now. Fight the rising inequality among America’s children.