I really wasn’t going to write about the New York Times story, “Two classes, divided by ‘I do’” by Jason DeParle. (I wish his last name didn’t look so much like mine.) In fact, I wasn’t even going to bother to read it. I wrote a whole chapter on the myths about single parents and their children in Singled Out, and I have revisited the topic often in my blog posts (for example, here and here and here). What more would there be to say?

When the number of readers who sent me links to the original story and to responses to it kept growing, even after more than a week had passed, I figured it was time to reconsider.

The story, if you haven’t read it, is about the income inequality between single-parent families and married-parent families (hence, “two classes, divided by ‘I do’”). To illustrate the gap in money—and, of course, so much else (this is a pity party for the singles), DeParle tells us about two female friends who work together in a day care center.

Chris is the director of the center. She’s a married mother. She hired Jessica and was so impressed with her work that she promoted her twice. So now Jessica is the assistant director. Still, she’s an hourly employee who makes $12.35 an hour and needs food stamps to get by. When she had surgery for cancer, she could not afford to take the six weeks off that her doctor prescribed; she was back to work after one.

Jessica, of course, is the single mother.

Throughout the lengthy story, we are treated to contrasts between the single-parent family and the married-parent family, including ominous prognostications about the life chances of Jessica’s kids.

Chris’s children, the Times tells us, have “a profound advantage;” they are “more likely to finish college, find good jobs, and form stable marriages” than Jessica’s kids.

Here are some other examples:

  • Jessica shops at discount stores and cannot afford to give her kids $2 to buy a bagel at school. They get generic cereal at home.
  • Chris’s kids play tennis and soccer and baseball and take karate lessons and go on awesome camping trips with the Boy Scout troop, which their father helps manage. 
  • Jessica drags her kids to work with her for nearly an hour several days a week, because she has to open the day care center and the kids’ school isn’t open yet.
  • Chris’s husband goes to work early so he can get home in time to take his boys to swim practice.
  • Chris’s son Justin wrote his dad the sweetest note thanking him for coming to his school trip.
  • Jessica’s kids are also ecstatic when she shows up for their field days, but she can do so rarely, because it costs her a day’s pay each time. 
  • It’s the weekend. Jessica’s son is in his room watching “Superman” alone and one of her daughters is in her pajamas by 7 p.m. because there’s nothing to do.
  • Meanwhile, Chris’s husband is off on one of the scouting trips with his sons. Their boys get to play tug-of-war, take glider rides, and sleep in tents with the rest of the troop. 
  • Chris and her husband take their kids on great family vacations every year.
  • Jessica brought her kids to Orlando once; they stayed with her brother.

I got to the end of the story—I had printed it—and went back online to see if the last pages were missing. I could not believe that after pages and pages of shaming the single-mother family and celebrating the married one, the piece was going to end with a single-factor explanation of the differences between the families and not one suggestion for policies that would make the world fairer for single parents and their children.

Here’s DeParle’s bottom line explanation of why Chris and Jessica and their children have such different life experiences:

 “What most separates them is not the impact of globalization on their wages but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin.”

Kevin, of course, is Chris’s husband. It was almost as if the entire point of the story was to say, “nyah, nyah, married families win!”

It is a black-and-white story. Married families = good families, happy families, successful families. Single-parent families = oh so sad and maybe even doomed.

Katie Roiphe does a nice job of telling DeParle to knock it off with the judgmental smug-marrieds tone. Her critique was called “New York Times, stop moralizing about single mothers” and subtitled, “No, their households are not always sad and falling apart.”

Always one to get right to the point about policy, Katha Pollitt asks what we could do “if we wanted to help Jessica and her kids [and] the millions like them” instead of just peddling already-debunked myths about the transformative power of marriage. Reflecting on the themes of the Times article, she asks:

 “Why does it seem like a reasonable policy suggestion to tell Jessica she needs a husband, and pie in the sky to say she needs a union? Or a national day care system like the one in France, where teachers are well-paid, with benefits?”

On a blog at the Center for Economic Policy Research, Shawn Fremstad takes on some of the economic claims made in the Times piece.

That leaves me to raise the obvious but unacknowledged point about rampant singlism. One of the reasons married people and their children do better than single ones is that financial biases favoring married people and discriminating against single people are written right into the laws of our land. The two adults in a married-person house do not just have the possibility of bringing in two paychecks instead of one; they also have access to substantial perks that single people do not.

For example, a single adult such as Jessica has no one else to turn to if she gets no access to affordable health insurance at work. If Chris is without that perk, she can still tag along on her husband’s plan if his workplace offers that option.

If Chris’s husband is in a workplace that qualifies for Family and Medical Leave Act, he can take time off to care for Chris if she gets sick. Important people in Jessica’s life, such as close friends or siblings or cousins (if she has such relatives) could not take time off under the Act to care for her—she’s not their spouse.

Chris and her husband can afford to buy a home—their combined income is three times (not twice) Jessica’s. Jessica rents. The financial favoritism continues: Homeowners get big tax write-offs that are unavailable to renters.

It is not just in public policy and the law where single people are officially disadvantaged. The marketplace typically charges less per person for two adults than for one. Just check out the deals for car insurance and so many other products and services. Single people such as Jessica who pay full price are subsidizing their economically better-off married couple friends, such as Chris and her husband, who get the discounts.  

The Times story also touts, with little by way of nuance, the same old scientifically-suspect talking points about how much better off the children of married parents supposedly are. Those statements will always be in need of qualification, because children cannot be randomly assigned to single-parent vs. married-parent homes. That means we cannot make strong and confident inferences about what is causing what. The better studies (such as those comparing children over time, before and after their parents divorce, rather than at just one point in time) sometimes suggest a very different dynamic than Married Family Good, Single Family Bad.

DeParle seems to believe that the married families have earned their better outcomes. For example, he claims that marriage “motivates” men to earn more. He seems oblivious to the studies showing that married men are paid more than single men, even when the two are equal in accomplishments and seniority. That’s not a motivational difference; it’s discrimination.

Also missing from the Times story is any awareness that stigmatizing stories such as this one are contributing to the disparity in the experiences of single-parent families and married-parent families that DeParle believes he is merely documenting. Go ahead, keep telling the single-parent families how bad they have it because there is no “6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin” and how superior the married families are because they do have their Kev. That sort of mythologizing and moralizing probably nudged Jessica into finding “a new boyfriend, who she thought would help with the children and the bills,” but who had to be tossed out by the police six months later.

Really, “just get married” isn’t the answer to the economic challenges of single parenting any more than “just say no” is the answer to drug addiction.

[Notes: Thanks to Nicole, Simone, Irv, Anonymous, Joe from St. Louis and everyone else (tell me your name and I’ll add it here) who sent me links to the articles mentioned here. Also, if you are interested, I have written elsewhere about whether a psychological geography can guide us to the best places for living single, and about five things you may not know about aging on your own. Other single blogs are always available at Single with Attitude.]

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