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The ‘I Do’ factor and poverty: Why are married families better off?

 Recent reports focus on the benefits of marriage and a stable family.

Andrew Cherlin: "It's the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged.''

In case you’ve been off in the North Woods with no Internet connection in recent days, The New York Times is taking on the issue of the ever-widening divisions in class in America.

And, like the works of English novelist Jane Austen, the stories seem to come down to this:  money and marriage.

Take The Times’ Sunday story out of Ann Arbor, Mich., contrasting two white women with kids, alike in many ways, except the single mom supports her children with a single paycheck and the other woman has a husband helping pay the bills. Plus, one’s a college graduate and the other not.

“It’s the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,’’ NYT reporter Jason DeParle quotes Andrew Cherlin, sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, as saying. 

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According to DeParle, motherhood outside of marriage is increasing among the less educated. Almost 60 percent of births outside marriage occur to women with high school degrees or less education on a par with such birth rates in minority groups, he says.

Then check out David Brooks’ piece on “The Opportunity Gap,”  a report on Harvard University political scientist Robert Putnam’s research documenting an alarming and widening opportunity gap between children of these different classes.

Both stories focus on similar themes: the effects of the income gap on children, the importance of education and the stability of the “I Do” factor. (Expect a storm of feminist reaction here.)

Says Brooks: “…the children of the more affluent and less affluent are raised in starkly different ways and have different opportunities.” 

As you would expect, the more well-off parents spend more money on their children, paying for after-school sports and other enrichment activities, for tutoring and they spend more time with their kids.

That’s different from a generation ago, according to Brooks’ report, when working-class parents spent more time with their kids than the upper classes, and their children joined in about as many out-of-school activities as the wealthier. Extra-curricular activities, like public school education, were “free” then. 

The better off can also afford to pay for their children’s college education.

Brooks quotes that Harvard political scientist:

As Putnam writes in notes prepared for the Aspen Ideas Festival: “It’s perfectly understandable that kids from working-class backgrounds have become cynical and even paranoid, for virtually all our major social institutions have failed them — family, friends, church, school and community.” As a result, poorer kids are less likely to participate in voluntary service work that might give them a sense of purpose and responsibility. Their test scores are lagging. Their opportunities are more limited.

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Quoted in the profiles of those two women from Michigan is Sara McLanahan, a Princeton University sociologist  with the Bendheim-Thoman Center for Research on Child Wellbeing, thus:

“The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,’’ Ms. McLanahan said. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.” She said, “I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.’’

Provocative questions

Which brings us to these provocative questions from Brooks: “Are liberals willing to champion norms that say marriage should come before childbearing?Are conservatives willing to accept higher taxes so more can be spent on the earned-income tax credits or other programs for the lower middle class?’’

Though hard to find during summer breaks, I tracked down one local academic, a specialist on class and gender at St. Catherine University in St. Paul to weigh in.

“I’m not disagreeing with the gap or the problem. I would disagree on policy, recommendations that people might make about it,’’ says sociology professor Nancy Heitzeg after reading the articles.

“It’s not just about marriage. It’s about a growing inequality gap,’’ she says, listing problems of rising inflation, declining wages, outsourced jobs and, not least, sexism.

There’s a persistent wage gap for women, with women still earning 77 cents for every dollar men make, Heitzeg says. “Even if you bring in education – say, women with PhDs often still make less than men with bachelor’s degrees. It’s a long story of sexism: what occupations are rewarded, what areas of curriculum women are routed into.

“Is the only solution to this to go to the behavioral level and say people should get married? If women were economically rewarded in the same way men are, maybe being married or not matters less,’’ Heitzeg says.

Other questions need to be asked, she says.

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For instance, is society making men accountable for the welfare of their children? Is society enforcing the “billions” of dollars in unpaid child support orders?  “Where are the mechanisms to encourage fathers, absent or not, to contribute economically?’’ she asks.

Heitzeg also argues that the opportunity gaps for children result from an underfunded public education system. 

Think back to those times when sports, theater, debate and all the other enrichment activities that educate and teach the value of hard-work and teamwork were offered “freeto all public school students, that time before activity fees, which are a barrier for many families scraping to make economic ends meet.