Beyond Murphy Brown
We're Ignoring the Fact That All Single Mothers Aren't Alike
By Douglas J. Besharov
This article originally appeared in The Washington Post, September 27, 1992.
Just how valuable are the "traditional values" everyone is talking
about in this campaign season? Well, for families with children, they are worth
about $ 25,000 a year. That's the difference in median income between families
with both parents present and those headed by a single mother.
That bleak statistic hints at a serious flaw in the way the Murphy
Brown-Dan Quayle debate over single motherhood has been framed. Choosing for or
against that having-it-all-including-baby TV newswoman lulls us into forgetting
that single mothers are not all alike. And these real moms' social and economic
needs are as complex as the factors that lead them to single motherhood in the
We all know individual mothers, such as those paraded on last
Monday's season opener of "Murphy Brown," who have surmounted numerous obstacles
to make relatively comfortable lives for themselves and their children. But they
don't reflect the experience of the vast bulk of their counterparts. Moreover,
even looking at groups of mothers -- as designers of public policy must -- one
sees enormous differences. The likely future of households created by divorce or
by the decision of a well-educated career woman to bear a child out of wedlock
is vastly different from the prospects of single-parent families created by the
birth of a child to an unwed teenager. Failure to make these distinctions has
obscured the nature of the problem -- and what to do about it.
There is good reason to be concerned about the condition of most
female-headed families with children under 18. Almost half have incomes below
the poverty line -- almost five times the poverty rate of comparable two-parent
families. In the last 30 years, the number of female-headed families nearly
tripled, to 7.7 million in 1990. The median income for these families was about
$ 12,000, only one-third of that enjoyed by two-parent families. If family
structure in 1990 was the same as in 1960, poverty among children would be
reduced by almost one-third, according to calculations by Pennsylvania State
demographer David Eggebeen. And family breakdown and ensuing poverty give every
indication of worsening. If present trends continue, about 60 percent of all
children born in 1980 will spend part of their childhood in a family headed by a
mother who is divorced, separated, unwed or widowed.
But lumping together all single mothers -- even all poor single
mothers -- is a misleading rhetorical convenience. As Census and other data
show, families headed by divorced mothers are, in general, doing much better
than aggregate statistics suggest, and families headed by mothers who have never
married are doing much worse.
In 1990, the median family income for never-married mothers with
children under the age of 18 was $ 8,337, compared to $ 15,762 for divorced
women with kids.
Marital status also explains much of the income disparity between
white and black female-headed families. In 1990, the median income of black
female-headed families was 32 percent less than white female-headed families, $
9,590 versus $ 14,028. Controlling for marital status -- whether the mother was
ever married -- narrows the gap to about 20 percent.
Never-married mothers are on average 10 years younger than
divorced mothers, and the age spread for divorcees is lower than it might
otherwise be because it includes many unwed mothers who marry, but only for a
short time. When one considers that two-thirds of all out-of-wedlock births in
1988 occurred to young women between the ages of 15 and 24, and that many
out-of-wedlock births to older women were second and third births to those who
had been unwed teenagers, it is easier to see why their financial situation is
so much worse than that of their divorced counterparts.
Never-married mothers also are, on average, much less educated.
Only 57 percent of never-married mothers have a high school diploma compared to
82 percent of divorced mothers.
Age, lack of education and other demographic factors combine to
give never-married women much poorer job prospects. In 1990, 63 percent of
divorced mothers worked full time, and an additional 11 percent worked part
time, but only 28 percent of never-married mothers worked full time, and 8
percent part time. And their lack of work experience is exacerbated by the fact
that young single mothers have little chance of completing their education or
acquiring job skills while having to care for a child.
These demographic differences between unmarried and divorced women
translate into dramatically different rates of welfare utilization. In fact,
children of never-married mothers are three times more likely to be on welfare
than are children of divorced mothers.
Teens have the worst prospects of all. According to a
Congressional Budget Office report, 77 percent of unmarried adolescent mothers
were welfare recipients within five years of the birth of their first child.
Sixty percent of AFDC mothers under the age of 30 had their first child as a
While divorced women typically use welfare as a temporary measure
until they get back on their feet, unmarried mothers are far more likely to
become trapped in long-term dependency. Forty percent of never-married mothers
will receive AFDC for 10 years or more, compared to 14 percent of divorced
Levels of child support also vary markedly between the two groups.
In 1987, 77 percent of divorced mothers received child support awards, but only
20 percent of never-married mothers did, and the annual payment to the latter
group was only about half of the meager $ 3,073 received by divorcees.
This dichotomy between the life prospects of divorced mothers and
those of unwed mothers is no reason to bash unwed mothers, but neither can it be
ignored. Nor is this to say that post-divorce poverty is not a serious problem;
it is. But much more than a divorce, an out-of-wedlock birth to a young mother
seems to be a direct path to long-term poverty.
[These differences are why even sharp critics of welfare sense a
lesser "moral hazard" when assistance is given to divorced mothers. Divorce and
its aftermath can be deeply traumatic, especially if there are children. And
there is no doubt that many people enter and exit marriage for the wrong
reasons. Nevertheless, it is one thing when two adults terminate a marriage that
has not worked out, and quite another when two teenagers have a baby as a result
of a casual union -- with the only prospect being a career of welfare
A clearer understanding of the divergent values that underlie each
behavior could lead to a major restructuring of welfare programs. For divorced
mothers, welfare could be transformed into a form of social insurance, and for
unwed teen mothers into a tool for guiding constructive changes in their
Douglas Besharov is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute. Karen Gardiner of AEI helped prepare this article, which is excerpted
from the current issue of American Enterprise Magazine.
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