Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Single Mother Stigma (Part 1)

A comment made in today's Town Hall Presidential debate resurrected an issue that has continued to plague me most of my life: the persistent stigma against single mothers (and less so to single fathers). As the product of a single parent, I take issue with people taking issue with single mothers. The question posed to the candidate was regarding gun control.

According to the debate transcript from ABC News, the exact question was, "President Obama, during the Democratic National Convention in 2008, you stated you wanted to keep AK-47s out of the hands of criminals. What has your administration done or planned to do to limit the availability of assault weapons?" Imbedded in Governor Romney's response to this question, he wanted to "mention mention another thing" and that other thing was the following:
And that is parents. We need moms and dads, helping to raise kids. Wherever possible the -- the benefit of having two parents in the home, and that's not always possible. A lot of great single moms, single dads. But gosh to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone, that's a great idea.
Not only did I not understand how this statement answered the question at hand, I found it to be yet another insidious comment in the countries disturbing trend of putting down single mothers. Immediately after the debate, social media started buzzing. People went to twitter to share their disgust at Romney finding correlation between gun violence to single parents, and one Daily Kos member thought the President should have responded "Single parents doing their best by their kids are not the problem. My mother was a single mom and I think her kid turned out a little differently than the stereotypical criminal you portray." But the latter didn't happen, and I think this is because single mother stigma is alive and well.

For those who trump the "traditional" marriage and family, the statistics about single mothers must be scary. According to Beth Snyder Bulik,
Today, there are about 10 million single mothers with children younger than 18 in the U.S., but they are older (average age, 39) and almost one-third have the support of a live-in partner. They do tend to have lower household incomes than their married counterparts, but most of them, about 80%, are working moms. ... About 40% of all children are born to single mothers today.
These numbers make many people insist that the stigma no longer exists or is waning.

On NPR's Talk of a Nation segment "For Single Mothers, Stigma is Difficult to Shake" cited a PEW Research Center poll that 70% of American think single women raising children on their own is bad for society. The negative stereotype is rooted in the statistics about single parents, which include "increases in dropout rate, increase in poverty, and an increase in children who have their first child before getting married." Teenage mothers garner the greatest stigma, so much so that the ACLU is launching a campaign to address discriminatory practices and policies impacting their lives. Denicia Cadena, Interim Director, Young Women United and Micaela Cadena, Campaign Coordinator, Young Women United remind us that "Too much is at stake when we shame and stigmatize young parents. Blaming social ills on young parents pushes them away from the support and resources that all families need to be healthy. Meaningful change in the lives of all young people is rooted in equal access to educational opportunities, living wage jobs, affordable health care, and safe housing."

What about fathers? When asked whether this stigma held true for single father, the researcher on NPR could not comment as they did not ask that question since most single parents are women. According to study by Bronwyn Harman, lecturer at Edith Cowan University lecturer, single fathers "face discrimination and are stereotyped as "incompetent" at caring for children." In fact, Dr. Harman claims single fathers face more stigma. "Single fathers are seen much more negatively than single mothers and there are more hurdles for fathers," Dr Harman said. "The main thing many men reported hearing from people is that they can't parent children as well as mothers can. While I agree that single father's carry their own kind of stigma, I do not think it is as pervasive or as damaging as the one carried by single mothers.

For those that are still not convinced that the stigma remains, the following are some descriptions by Tracy Mayor of people's perceptions of single mothers:
They’re easy. They’re slutty. They got pregnant with some random guy. Or, selfishly, they ran out to the sperm bank when they turned forty....
They’re always broke. They’re on welfare. They’re sponging off the taxpayers. They should work for a living, and, simultaneously, they should stay home with their kids. Whatever they do, it’s never as good as what a married mom does. Ever. It’s their fault.
They should have worked harder to keep their marriages together. They go out partying anytime the ex has the children. They’re man-haters. Or manhunters, who shouldn’t be left alone with other people’s husbands. Their kids are troubled, or troublemakers, bound for the penitentiary, suffering without a male in the house, un-cared for, un-read to, a bad influence on other children.
They’re brave but pitiable. Their families, and their lives, aren’t complete because they don’t have a mommy and a daddy living under the same roof...
I have heard this all my life from people from various backgrounds and political affiliations. When I tell them I am offended by the statement, some attempt to back peddal but I'm always surprised by how many hold their ground.

In the next installment on this topic, I will delve further into the statistics that 'inform' this stereotype and why attacking single parents is not the effective way to combat the problems attributed to single parents.


Heather said...

I was also very confused with Romney's answer. Andrew and I were both doing other things and had the debate on in the background. When we heard the comments about promoting marriage then a reference to Fast and Furious, we both looked at each other and said, "what was the question?" How are those linked at all?

Romney's answer does demonstrate a pervasive stigma against single mothers (and fathers to a lesser extent).

Andrew and I also caught the Talk of the Nation when it aired awhile ago, and we were both left with the impression that linking poverty to family status really gets us no where. There is correlation but no causation. Why can't we seem to move past it and focus on factors that have much more profound impact on poverty (education, cost of housing, access to transportation, etc.)?

KRB said...

Like Patricija and Heather, I was confused by Romney’s tangent on single parents and how it possibly related to a question about gun control. I guess he thinks that it takes two parents to instill values in their children. Ironically, President Obama, who was raised in a single parent household, was standing right next to him. It is terrible that this kind of ignorance is so pervasive, and even more terrible that a candidate for our presidency is no exception.

Elizabeth said...

To talk in such ignorant terms about single parents was just completely unnecessary and out of context. Particularly so when the President of the United States, who was raised by a single mother, was standing right next to him.

As you pointed out, there are many stereotypes about single mothers and not many options for them to overcome these stereotypes. Either they work and are "neglectful" or they stay home to raise their kids and they become "welfare queens."

Yes ideally a child would have many adults in his or her life to help guide and nurture him or her. This does not mean that these adults must be biological parents. Obama was raised by his mother and his grandparents. There are all kinds of non-nuclear families that produce great people and many, many nuclear families that produce messed up people who hurt others or damaged people with fathers who hurt them physically or emotionally.

I'm really not sure who Romney was trying to appeal to with that comment because there are single mothers in every socioeconomic class, race, geographic area, and political affiliation.

Pali said...
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Pali said...

Ironic a candidate for president is failing to identify a key fallacy I remember studying for on the LSAT.

Correlation is not causation.

Statistics can be manipulated to support any theory, especially by exploiting biases in questions. The stigma against non traditional nuclear families is absurd. A two-parent heterosexual couple cannot ensure a productive member of society, any more than a single mother ensures a criminal. A good single parent household can do worlds better than a bad two-parent household.