Policy Matters: (It’s Not) All in the Family

At a recent conference on economic mobility, Isabel Sawhill of Brookings pointed out that concern about family structure is misapplied concern about the quality of parenting. She suggested a new social norm: don’t have a baby until you and your partner are in a committed relationship and are ready for kids. Her suggestion makes me wonder: who gets to determine readiness? Who gets to set that norm?

But maybe it should be a different question: what are the policies and supports that would enable low-wage single parents to thrive and provide opportunities for their children to succeed? Certainly it wouldn’t be the ones we have in place in the US, and particularly in the South, right now. Stephanie Coontz explains:

Growing economic inequality and social insecurity, combined with declining investment in public resources, put ever more stress on the finances and personal relationships of low-income parents. Yet they also require parents to spend ever more time and money on enrichment and educational activities for their children. This is a race in which poor parents, even married ones, inevitably fall behind, with single parents especially disadvantaged.

This cycle, rising economic insecurity for low-income working parents combined with less investment in public systems of opportunity, is not inevitable; it’s a policy and resource allocation choice. Last Week Tonight with John Oliver said it best on Mother’s Day, “we do anything for our moms, up to, but not including, paying them to stay home for a while after pushing a human being out of their body.” We don’t have any nationally required paid paternity leave, and only 40 percent of workers are in jobs that are covered by the Family Medical Leave Act with guarantees of unpaid leave following the birth or adoption of a child.

The choice between income to support one’s family and irreplaceable time with a new child is tough for anyone, but it’s often devastating for low-wage workers. (In Southern states, between 26.3 and 34.6 percent of working women are in low-wage jobs.) The cost of diapers is six percent of a full-time minimum-wage earner’s paycheck, according to Joanne Samuel Goldblum. That $18 a week may not sound like much, but essential costs like diapers add up quickly. Taking on additional hours would mean additional childcare expenses and less time spent with a child. For low-wage working parents, every minor choice becomes a stressful tradeoff between two bad options. As Goldblum puts it, “for middle-class parents, money covers our shortcomings.”

Those choices are a lot easier—and a lot less consequential—when you live in a place that works well for kids with parents of any income level. As Emily Badger points out, the most recent Equality of Opportunity Project study (which we discussed in an earlier post) tells us that the same places that produce good outcomes for low-income children produce good outcomes for high-income children. The kinds of community systems and policies that lead to success are universally beneficial. “Poor kids and rich kids need a lot of the same things: high-quality schools, healthy neighborhoods, stable homes,” says Badger. “What’s good for one is good for the other.”

That study also tells us that outcomes for siblings are different when a family moves to one of those places with higher economic mobility—a sibling who spends more time growing up in the more mobile place does better. What happens inside a family and the quality of parenting is not the only thing that matters for success; the place, its policies, and the strength of its infrastructure of opportunity, matter too.

Let’s not forget the adage: you’re never really ready for parenthood. Yes, it’s often less stressful (emotionally, financially, and logistically) to raise kids with two parents. It’s also a lot less stressful to raise kids with a stable income, good health, and some leisure time to focus on enriching their lives. As long as our economy and public policy make it so hard for so many Americans to have those things, we can’t fault people for choosing to have kids anyways. (And, yes, policy can make sure it is actually a choice.) Regardless of what you think about the right time and circumstances for that choice, the South can and must build the kinds of communities where all children have a chance to thrive—and where all parents have the security of knowing that is possible.