Photo by gadgetgirl via flickr CC.
Photo by gadgetgirl via flickr CC.

Originally published July 19, 2016

Family and work scholar Sarah Damaske, author of For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, is Assistant Professor of Labor & Employment Relations and Sociology at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research responds to policy puzzles about the relationship between family, work, and inequality. That’s why I wanted to learn her response this week, when conservative (and anti-Trump) columnist George Will wrote the latest piece looking wistfully back at the 50-year old arguments of Daniel Patrick Moynihan – in this case in praise of family structure as the explanation for educational failures.

Will’s piece, linking the work on education from sociologist James Coleman to Moynihan’s contemporaneous claims about the “tangle of family pathologies” in the 1960s, looks like more “neomoynihanism.” What’s that? As a little background, in a summer 2015 review Stephanie Coontz titled this whole return to the past “The Moynihan Family Circus.” Coontz explains, “When it comes to social thinking about families, there is such a thing as ‘American exceptionalism.’ Other Western countries tend to view people’s life trajectories in light of their place in the class structure. But ever since the late-nineteenth century, Americans have typically attributed people’s successes or failures to their family structures and values. This is, of course, a convenient way to reconcile our faith in individual achievement with the reality of racial and economic inequality.”

What did Sarah have to say about the sociological record on all of this?

VR: What do you think of Will’s argument that “social science offers sobering evidence that family structure accounts for poor school performance”?

SD: One of the fundamental pieces of the picture that Will leaves out of this analysis is how we fund our public schools in the United States. This is important because funding structures—not family structures—are key to understanding ways to address and reduce inequality. But we fund schools using local tax dollars, which means that schools in areas where parents make a lot of money are usually quite wealthy, while schools in areas where parents make little are usually quite poor. Thus, how we choose to fund our schools has a profound impact on the quality of education that children have available to them.

That being said, it is incorrect to say that education has no impact on children’s lives—there is simply no evidence to suggest that this is true. Many children gain higher levels of education than their parents had and achieve social mobility. Still, those with parents without college degrees do face different challenges in high school and college and there is less economic intergenerational mobility in the United States than there is in other countries.

VR: So, what are the main challenges facing single parent families in the United States?

SD: My current research with colleagues, Jenifer Bratter of Rice University and Adrianne Frech of the University of Akron, suggests that the biggest problem single-mother households face is finding work that will lift their families out of poverty. We find that single-mother households were at greater risk of poverty in 2010 than they were in 2000, and we can link this risk directly to the fact that even full-time work is now often not enough to keep a family out of poverty. Moreover, as sociologist Philip Cohen has pointed out, married Black families are almost two and a half times more likely to live in poverty than are white families, which leads him to ask, “explain to me again how marriage is the problem here?”

The idea that single parent families are themselves “the problem” seems to me to be a smokescreen that masks the real challenges families face and stigmatizes a particular family form. In my opinion, based on considerable sociological evidence, the main problem facing families is low wages and, as my own research suggests, a lack of affordable childcare to make continued workforce participation possible for women to help them raise their wages and support their families.

Moreover, qualitative interviews done both with white and black women living in poverty (by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas) and with working-class men and women (by Jennifer Silva) find that marriage remains a strong social value. But young people today believe that they can’t marry because they can’t find stable jobs to support themselves, never mind a family. Again, this makes the case that wages (as well as growing job instability) are at the heart of these challenges, and increasing wages and decreasing job uncertainty are likely the best ways to make marriage possible for those who want it and make those who don’t want it more economically secure.

VR: Will argues that liberals only care about social science “when it validates policies congenial to the interests of favored factions.” Want to respond?

SD: In his conclusion, Will scolds liberals for ignoring social science, but he, himself, ignores decades of sociological work that challenges the Moynihan report, just a fraction of which I have sketched above! The Moynihan report is, in fact, one of the most controversial sociological findings of the 20th century, but there is no acknowledgement of that controversy in the column. There is, indeed, research to suggest that there are benefits to being married—this makes some common sense, as people can combine incomes, save on household costs, and pool their time use. But there is also significant cause for concern here, as we also know that trying to stay together can increase domestic violence rates, can be worse for children’s emotional well-being when parents fight a lot, and can be bad for the mental health of the unhappily married. Will appears to want to turn back time, but that is one of the few things that we can all agree upon—there are no time machines, we must move forward. Moreover, we may not truly want to go back, because when we look closely at that time capsule to the 1950s, we see, as Stephanie Coontz explains, many women felt oppressed in their homes, most families of color were left out of the economic largess of that time period, and LGBTQ families had no rights at all.

Policies that would truly benefit single mothers and have been validated by some of the best social science include three that are currently on the hill. The Healthy Families Act would allow workers in companies with at least 15 employees to earn up to seven paid sick days a year. Close to 40 percent of Americans do not have ONE sick day—to care for themselves, for their children, for their family members. Localities that have adopted similar plans have found real benefits for families and employers. The FAMILY Act would provide workers with up to twelve weeks of partial income replacement when they need to take leave to take care of their own serious health problem, a pregnancy and post-partum recovery, a serious health problem of a family member, the birth or adoption of a child, or a serious military medical leave condition. Many single mothers cannot use our current Family and Medical Leave Act, because they cannot afford to take unpaid time off from work. This act would address this. Finally, the Schedules that Work Act would address the problem of unpredictable schedules that face so many Americans today. Slightly over 40 percent of young adult workers do not know their schedule more than one week ahead of time. This causes many challenges for single mother households in particular, as their incomes and their need for childcare vary on a weekly basis, as experts Susan Lambert and Julia Henley have repeatedly demonstrated in their work. In conclusion, there is clear sociological evidence and clear solutions to the problems facing families today. We just need the will to act.

For more information on these topics or to find out how you can support the three policies described above, you can visit:

The National Partnership for Women and Children

The Washington Center for Equitable Growth

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research