Single Moms At It Again, according to Third Way Foundation Report

If female-headed single-parent families (FHSPF) did not exist, conservatives would have to create them–because they are so useful in explaining any and every thing that has gone wrong in the U.S. for the past 50 years. For Senator Daniel Moynihan in the 1960s, FHSPF were the explanation for African American poverty. For President Ronald Reagan in the '80s, FHSPF provided the “welfare queens” (implicitly African American) who enjoyed lives of leisure on our tab.

Most recently, FHSPF has been called into service as an explanation for males falling behind females in college attendance and graduation and thus losing out in the competition for high income jobs. The latter is the argument presented in a recent Third Way (3W) document profiled in the March 20, 2013, New York Times.

Headlined “Study of Men’s Falling Income Cites Single Parents,” the article reports on a 3W paper entitled “Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education.”  The NYT headline pretty much sums up the content of the paper–and who do you think were the single-parents cited? FHSPF to the rescue once again.

Before considering the interesting and telling lacunae of the study, it is worth noting that, despite the label given to 3W by the NYT writer, it is not a “center-left policy research organization.”  3W has published papers supporting the Bowles-Simpson Commission recommendations and urging cutbacks in spending for Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid because they crowd out necessary infrastructure spending. Other reports explain how fortunate Americans (sic) are because we have the most deep and liquid capital markets. These are not “center left” positions. Actually, on its website, 3W states it represents the “vital center” that, it claims, is ignored in Washington. (The website conveniently does not list 3W funders.)

The 3W paper does not actually present any new data. Neither does it discuss racial differences. (White women are a plurality of single mothers, at about 40%; African American women are about one-third; Latinas are about one-quarter.) Instead, the paper reviews a large number of existing studies covering a wide range of data. But the argument that got all the attention, in the article as well as on the 3W website, is simple. FHSPF disadvantage boys more than girls because of the lack of a male role model and the tendency of single mothers to invest more (time, empathy) in their daughters. This is turn is hypothesized as a possible source of “men’s falling income.” 

A first point to note is the focus on FHSPF. What about MHSPF?  Out of curiosity I googled the latter and got . . . articles about FHSPF. Of course, there are more FHSPF than MHSPF, but the latter are not insignificant in number and are growing more rapidly than the former. If the gender of the parent and that of the child are significant in terms of parental investment in the child, is this unique to FHSPF? Apparently we don’t know–and the lengthy 3W paper never asks the question. The popular culture assumption of male breadwinners as the norm against which deviant cases should be assessed permeates social science.

The 3W authors acknowledge that the low level of financial resources in FHSPF is harmful to the futures of both female and male children. But the issue that really interests them is the level of non-monetary parental resources available to invest in children and the distribution of these resources by gender of the child. They acknowledge that FHSPF are short in this category as well, primarily because of the demands of employment on the mother’s time and energies. They suggest, however, that male children in FHSPF are particularly harmed in their educational and employment outcomes, leading to a vicious cycle of low-income households breeding the next generation of low-income households. The paper cites one study that reports single mothers spending an hour a week more interacting with daughters than with sons. Another study reports that daughters raised in FHSPF are 10-14% more likely to attend college than their male siblings in FHSPF where the mother had at least some college education.

In  addition to being very light on actual evidence, the 3W paper shares the all too common assumption that a study of the U.S. will reveal all that is worth knowing about an issue. American exceptionalism is so deeply embedded in academic culture that the authors blithely proceed with only a passing reference to the rest of the world.

Suppose, however, that the authors had decided that there was something to learn from comparative analysis of FHSPF. After all, there are a large number of other wealthy countries that also have FHSP families. A moderately curious analyst would have asked, what about them? 

And a comparative look at the U.S. vs. Western Europe and the Antipodes, all with per capita incomes above $30,000, reveals some interesting patterns. In the U.S. as elsewhere, FHSPF (more than 80% of single-parent families in all 17 countries) are more likely to be poor than are two-parent families. But there the similarity between the U.S. and the other 16 countries ends. The U.S. has (i) a higher percentage of children living in single-parent families, (ii) a much higher rate of employment for these single-parents and (iii) by far the highest proportion of these families in poverty than any other country. After taxes have been paid and transfers (for example, Temporary Aid to Needy Families) made, the U.S. poverty rate for single-parent families is almost double the wealthy country average. Why?  Because, despite the higher rate of full time employment among single parents, we also have (i) by far the highest rate of low wage employment; and (ii) the lowest level of social support for these families.

Let’s look further at the implications of the differences between the U.S. and the other 16 for the question of their impact on children. As noted above, the 3W paper draws a distinction between financial resources and non-monetary resources and acknowledges that FHSPF are deficient in both. But what the 3W study calls non-monetary resources really aren’t, except in the U.S. Time to nurture children can be purchased. In the U.S., this is a purchase made primarily by higher income families, because it is available only on the private market.

In all other 16 countries, much child raising time and many resources are provided through the social market. Society as a whole invests in these (and other) families by providing (i) guaranteed paid parental leave (a minimum of 9 weeks in all the other 16 countries vs. 0 for the U.S.), (ii) guaranteed paid annual leave (an average of 4.2 weeks in the 16 countries vs. 0 in the U.S.), (iii) guaranteed paid holidays (an average of 6 in the 16 vs. 0 in the U.S.), (iv) child allowance payments in all 16 but  not in the U.S. and (v) guaranteed health care in  the 16 but not in the U.S.

Raising (or as the 3W authors call it, investing in) children requires time and money to provide both the substantive and the emotional support required for a good life. Yes, it may be the case that FHSPF invest somewhat less in their sons and that sons in FHSPF are disadvantaged relative to daughters, but these are at best problems at the margin of family life. For U.S. children and their parents, single or dual, the problem is a society that does not value children and leaves their emotional and physical livelihood to the vagaries of a labor market that has one of the highest levels of low wage work in the wealthy world and disproportionally consigns single female parents to that sector.

Bill Barclay is on the Executive Committee of Chicago DSA and serves as National Member Organizer.


Binyamin Appelbaum, “Study of Men’s Falling Income Cites Single Parents,” March 20, 2013,

David Autor and Melanie Wasserman, “Wayward Sons: The Emerging Gender Gap in Labor Markets and Education,” Third Way, 2013.

Timothy Casey and Laurie Maldonado, “Worst Off–Single-Parent Families in the United States: A Cross-National Comparison of Single Parenthood in the U.S. and Sixteen Other High-Income Countries,” The Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, Dec. 2012,

OECD Factbook 2013: Economic, Environmental and Social Statistics - © OECD 2012;

U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Census Bureau,

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