You have to hand it to Maria Shriver. With her newly released report “A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back From the Brink” the Kennedy scion and gender impresario has managed to wrench the spotlight away from manicured leaning-inners and having-it-allers to the struggling women at the bottom. That’s a good thing. But if the 50 plus essays in her report — a hodge-podge of celebrity fan bait, service provider p.r., Oprahesque personal stories, and boilerplate feminism — proves anything, it’s that a Woman’s Nation is no place for men, young or old. And as a result, it’s not all that great for women either.
Of course, Shriver’s bona fides as a poverty warrior are hard to question. Her father Sargent Shriver was tapped by President Johnson to run the War on Poverty 50 years ago, a time when poverty wore a very different face than it does today. It was the tattered and barefoot Appalachian family and the malnourished children of Mississippi tenant farmers, some of whose relatives had escaped to the North only to become mired in decaying urban ghettoes.
Today’s poverty would be unrecognizable to Shriver Sr., inextricably entwined, as it is, with single motherhood. In his day, rich and poor tried to avoid what he would have called “illegitimacy” like they would a house fire; in fact, a stunning 95% of children were born to married couples. As everyone knows, that’s far from today’s reality. A Woman’s Nation gives some of the details: 42% of American children are born to unmarried women. Yet children in female-headed families are four to five times as likely to be poor as children living with their mother and father. The median income for a never-married mother is $17,400; that puts her below the poverty line if she has two kids. Other studies put it even more dramatically: 83% of family households in the bottom quintile are headed by a lone mother. It would be more accurate to frame the problem as a Single Mother Nation on the brink.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Single mothers, who tend to be low skilled to begin with, are competing in the labor market with one hand tied behind their backs. The most obvious way to improve their economic situation would be to have a second earner, even if he also is low skilled, and a co-parent, or to put it more simply, a husband and father.
Yet the report is having none of that. With the exception of a powerful but out-of-place essay by Harvard sociologist Kathryn Edin, it contains barely a word about the creatures who helped turn the denizens of Woman’s Nation into mothers. It’s as if the men of the Woman’s Nation have been disappeared. Women are “the engine driving the economy,” we hear on several occasions. Low income women are the “backbone of our economy and of their families.” Elsewhere we learn that “developing the assets of low-income women is key to addressing our nation’s financial insecurity.” Stagnating male median wages, high levels of school failure among boys, mass incarceration, reasons frequently cited for the decline of marriage – and the rise of women on the brink - in low income communities? Not a problem in the Woman’s Nation.
Or so the report seems to imply. In reality, there is no way to separate women and men’s well being. When men are doing well, it works to women’s advantage, and vice versa. Consider that plenty of those “women and their families” include boys who, presumably, will grow up to be men. Many studies suggest they would benefit from the presence of fathers. They are out of luck, and so are the children they may have when they get to be of age. Boys growing up with single mothers are more likely to have behavior problems in school, to be suspended, to drop out, and to become absent fathers themselves. And so without attending to men who would be husbands and fathers, the cycle of single motherhood continues.
To bring women back from the brink, the Shriver report tries out a slew of ideas that don’t involve men. They range from the reasonable – easing the “child care cliff” which eliminates child care subsidies all at once when a mother’s income rises to a certain level – to the daffy – teaching meditation to boys with ADD. (More common among sons of single mothers, by the way.) But whatever their benefits, the proposed solutions underline the disadvantage of single motherhood that policy can never resolve.
In a stunt-essay that has –unsurprisingly -brought the report immense publicity, Beyonce warns that “the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes.” She fails to mention that one big reason for the gap is that mothers work fewer hours than men and childless women. Maternity and sick pay leave, two proposals made in other essays, could ease some of the stress of lone mothers; in some cases, they might help women keep their jobs. But these would only protect mothers for several months out of the 18 year parenthood marathon. Workplace flexibility, the other solution to ills of the Single Mother Nation, has also been shown to add to wage gaps by creating a less competitive “mommy track.” Let’s face it: a woman whose children’s father is in the house is always going to be in a far better position than a lone mother to increase work hours if she wants, to have a caretaker at home with a sick child, and to cover for her during those times when work can’t wait, and no policy can change that.
In an elite culture so invested in parity between men and women, it’s strange to read a report that so entirely accepts do-nothing fathers. But I guess that’s what happens when, as in a Woman’s Nation on the Brink, you give up on men.