NYT’s Kristof Gets a Bit Right, a Bit Wrong on Families and Child Poverty

March 13, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

I don’t often laud Nicholas Kristof. His op-eds for the New York Times are routinely smug and ill-informed. If there’s a single false assumption typically held by liberal chatterers to which Kristof doesn’t subscribe, I certainly haven’t found it. But when a person veers in the right direction, I’m honor-bound to say so, and this is one such time (New York Times, 3/11/15).

His subject is single-parent families and how they affect children. Although he’s clearly new to this territory, to his credit, Kristof gets a lot – if not everything – right. Predictably, his proposed solutions are anything but good enough, but at least he forces Times readers to look the problem in the face.

Kristof reminds readers that we’ve known the problems of single-parent families for 50 years, i.e. at least since Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued his analysis of African-American families in 1965. And more to his credit, Kristof excoriates liberals and Democrats for failing to heed Moynihan’s warnings.

Fifty years ago this month, Democrats made a historic mistake.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the time a federal official, wrote a famous report in March 1965 on family breakdown among African-Americans. He argued presciently and powerfully that the rise of single-parent households would make poverty more intractable.

“The fundamental problem,” Moynihan wrote, is family breakdown. In a follow-up, he explained: “From the wild Irish slums of the 19th-century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families … never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future — that community asks for and gets chaos.”

Liberals brutally denounced Moynihan as a racist. He himself had grown up in a single-mother household and worked as a shoeshine boy at the corner of Broadway and 43rd Street in Manhattan, yet he was accused of being aloof and patronizing, and of “blaming the victim.”

Now of course we know that being raised by a single parent is bad for girls too. They suffer many of the same emotional, psychological and educational deficits that boys do, but also a greater likelihood of early pregnancy. Those are facts Moynihan didn’t know at the time.

Neither does Kristof let conservatives off the hook, and rightly so.

Conservatives shouldn’t chortle at the evidence that liberals blew it, for they did as well. Conservatives say all the right things about honoring families, but they led the disastrous American experiment in mass incarceration; incarceration rates have quintupled since the 1970s. That devastated families, leading countless boys to grow up without dads.

Now, Kristof’s opinions get a bit shaky when he starts relying on liberal buzzwords.

[E]vidence is now overwhelming that family structure matters a great deal for low-income children of any color.

In 2013, 71 percent of black children in America were born to an unwed mother, as were 53 percent of Hispanic children and 36 percent of white children.

Indeed, a single parent is the new norm. At some point before they turn 18, a majority of all American children will likely live with a single mom and no dad.

My point isn’t to cast judgment on nontraditional families, for single parents can be as loving as any.

First, Kristof’s claim that family structure only matters for “low-income children” is just flat wrong. It probably matters more for those kids than for those with affluent parents. But, while he quotes Sara McLanahan, Kristof obviously hasn’t read her book, written with Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent. The authors demonstrate quite persuasively that a single-parent upbringing impacts far more than a child’s access to money. Perhaps as important, children with only one parent lose the social capital supplied by the absent parent. That means that parent’s extended family plus all the other friends, acquaintances and contacts associated with the absent parent.

And of course there’s the fact that single parents have only half the time and energy to devote to childrearing (or anything else) that two parents do. That means less time reading, less time playing, less time teaching, less time for everything a parent can offer of benefit to children.

So Kristof shouldn’t try to spin this as simply a problem of the poor and racial minorities.

He also shouldn’t lump single-parent households with “nontraditional families.” That mushy euphemism can mean almost anything, but single-parent families are discrete entities unto themselves. Families with two lesbian or gay male parents aren’t “traditional,” but they still tend to be capable parents raising healthy, well-adjusted children. That means they’re very different from the single-parent variety bemoaned by Moynihan and countless others over the years.

And he shouldn’t pretend that single parents being just “as loving as any” in some way addresses the many ills of single-parent households. I have not the slightest doubt that single parents love their kids every bit as much as anyone else, but the quantum of love just isn’t the point. The question is whether they give children the resources, attention and protection they need to grow into healthy, productive adults. And the unequivocal answer is that, on average, they don’t.

That brings us to Kristof’s “solutions” which, to put it mildly, don’t do the job.

In line with Moynihan’s thinking, we can support programs to boost the economic prospects for poorer families. We can help girls and young women avoid pregnancy (30 percent of American girls become pregnant by age 19). If they delay childbearing, they’ll be more likely to marry and form stable families, notes Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution.

So we have 41% of children born to single mothers and family courts producing more single-parent households every day and Kristof’s quite vague response is to somehow “boost the economic prospects for poorer families” and (again) somehow keep girls from becoming pregnant. If anyone among policy makers had the slightest intention of doing either and had a viable plan for doing so, Kristof’s ideas would have some validity. After all, improving the economic outlook for the poor and further reducing teen pregnancy are both good and compassionate ideas.

But, with the current political zeitgeist being what it is, they’re also as remote as Pluto. Kristof’s “solutions” look very much like tired old excuses for doing nothing. He can demonstrate that he’s aware of the problem of one-parent children while knowing full well that his thoughts about what to do about it are just that.

But what we can do easily and essentially free of cost is to pass equal parenting laws that would keep each parent actively involved in children’s lives following divorce or separation. About one million divorces are finalized in the United States each year. About 70% of those are couples with children. Now, just how many of those divorces effectively ease one parent out of the children’s lives isn’t known. But we do know that the standard order that sees one parent reduced to seeing his/her children 14% – 20% of the time tends to do just that. And out the door with Dad go all Dad’s relatives and other social capital that McLanahan and Sandefur tell us are so important to child well-being.

If we really want to strike a blow against child poverty, we’ll do what we can to keep two biological parents involved in children’s lives. Above all, that means reforming family law. There are other things that need to be done, but no approach to child poverty can be meaningful without family laws that promote equal parenting.


National Parents Organization is a Shared Parenting Organization

National Parents Organization is a non-profit that educates the public, families, educators, and legislators about the importance of shared parenting and how it can reduce conflict in children, parents, and extended families. Along with Shared Parenting we advocate for fair Child Support and Alimony Legislation. Want to get involved?  Here’s how:

Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.

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