The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Debunking Unwed-Motherhood Myths

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

By dramatically cutting the cash-assistance welfare rolls and transitioning unwed mothers into the labor market, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 has been praised as a policy success, especially by Republicans who drove the legislation. Yet a study by sociologists Matthew McKeever of Mount Holyoke College and Nicholas Wolfinger of the University of Utah, researchers who find that never-married mothers experienced only modest economic gains during the last two decades of the twentieth century, suggests that the architects of welfare reform may have oversold the promise of employment for improving the lot of single mothers.

Looking at Current Population Survey data on never-married mothers collected between 1982 and 2002, the two sociologists find that these mothers experienced the same upward tick on measures of educational achievement and workforce participation as did American women in general. Relative to never-married mothers in 1982, never-married mothers in 2002 were more likely to have finished high school, attended college, or earned a college or advanced degree. They were more likely to be employed, to be working full time, to have greater household income. They were also more likely in 2002, to have experienced their first birth at later ages (in their 20s rather than their teens) and have fewer children than they were in 1982. In all but the last of these measures, the differences between 1982 and 2002 were statistically significant (p<.001).

Yet even as these never-married mothers were following the politically correct script, the script does not appear to have delivered for them. As McKeever and Wolfinger note:

Never-married mothers at the bottom of the income distribution have made almost no headway, while those in the median and upper-quartile achieved only modest income growth. Even at the top of the distribution there are few incomes that compare with those of two-parent families. Never married mothers continue to languish in poverty despite impressive gains in education and other personal and vocational characteristics that should have resulted in greater economic progress.

Indeed, in their decomposition analysis, the researchers estimate that the dramatic changes in the attributes of these mothers, relative to their corresponding cohort in 1982, should have resulted in income gains that were two to three times larger than what actually occurred.

McKeever and Wolfinger acknowledge that their study debunks popular myths of single motherhood and its viability, noting that “these findings cast doubt on the existence of a burgeoning middle class of professional women who opt for unmarried motherhood.” They even concede, “It will take more than job placement programs to lift [unwed mothers] out of poverty.” Yet the researchers hold back from the more obvious conclusion. While acknowledging “pervasive and enduring disadvantages” rooted in “unstable families of origin” that limit “these mothers’ ability to succeed in the job market,” the two fail to equate those inherent disadvantages with the retreat since the 1960s from the middle-class life script that places marriage before childbirth.

That’s unfortunate, as their findings confirm that more education and labor-force participation cannot replace the social resources necessary for breaking the poverty cycle.

(Matthew McKeever and Nicholas H. Wolfinger, “Thanks for Nothing: Income and Labor Force Participation for Never-Married Mothers Since 1982,” Social Science Research 40.1 [January 2011]: 63–76.)