Absent fathers, not working mothers, limit student achievement
At a recent event sponsored by the Washington Post, Phil Bryant, the Republican governor of Mississippi, suggested that one reason for the mediocre performance of American students is that something went wrong when “both parents started working,” and specifically when “mom is in the workplace.” Not surprisingly, Bryant has been roundly condemned for supposedly condemning working mothers. Even at the time of his controversial remarks, however, he was careful to acknowledge that the rise of working mothers “is not a bad thing,” and that parents’ pursuit of careers is “a great American story.” Rather than blame working mothers, he simply observed that “in today’s society parents are just so challenged ‑ not just the mom, but the mom and the dad.” Bryant was trying to make a point, however clumsily, about the struggles working parents face in making time for their children, and his reward for doing so has been opprobrium from people who really ought to have listened to his entire statement.
I have my own objection to Bryant’s remarks, which is that he kept referring to the challenges facing two-parent, two-earner households. These challenges are real, as any harried married parent will tell you. But it is tough to argue that these households aren’t devoting enough time and energy to their children. For one thing, the median income of married-couple households is almost twice that of other households, in part because 59 percent of married-couple households are two-earner households. Money isn’t everything, to be sure, but it is certainly something, and married parents have substantially more of it than single parents.
Moreover, as the economists Garey Ramey and Valerie Ramey of the University of California-San Diego have found, married mothers and fathers spend substantially more time with their children now than they did in the mid-1990s, and this increase has been twice as great for college-educated as it has been for non-college-educated parents. If Bryant is right that making time for your children is important, and I’m pretty sure he is right, parents in two-earner households have been taking this idea to heart for almost 20 years, often at the expense of earning additional income.
What is more striking still is that, as Joni Hersch of Vanderbilt Law School has found, mothers who graduate from elite universities are considerably less likely to be working full-time than mothers who graduate from less-prestigious universities. This could be a reflection of privilege. Mothers who graduate from elite universities might marry men with high earning potential and so can afford low levels of labor force participation. But the decision to “opt out” also presumably reflects a desire to make the kind of hands-on investment in the well-being of children that Bryant had in mind.
Of course, most U.S. children aren’t growing up in the relatively affluent two-parent households described by Ramey and Ramey and Hersch. A recent Pew Research Center report by Wendy Wang, Kim Parker, and Paul Taylor observe that as of 2011 25.3 percent of households with children under the age of 18 are headed by a single mother. By way of comparison, the same was true for only 7 percent of households with children in 1960.
Single parents, and in particular single mothers, who tend to earn lower incomes than single fathers, find themselves in a particularly difficult position. Time spent reading to a child or nurturing a child is time that might otherwise be spent earning enough income to rent a home in a good school district, or to meet basic needs. Until Governor Bryant recognizes the unique challenges facing single-mother families, he won’t really understand the forces that are holding American children back. As Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas make clear in their research on single mothers, most would welcome having a reliable partner to help them raise their children. The deeper problem is that reliable partners are in short supply.
So if Bryant really wants to better the lives of American children and to ease the time pressures on working parents, he ought to start with the challenges facing America’s poorest, least-educated men, who figure prominently in the ranks of America’s absent fathers. There are many things we might do to better the lot of these men and to make them more reliable husbands and fathers, like offering new educational options to encourage them to complete high school and reforming the criminal justice system. Reducing high school dropout rates and increasing police protection to deter crime will likely prove expensive in the short term. Yet the long-term benefits are potentially huge, as a more educated workforce and a workforce that includes fewer ex-offenders will tend to earn higher incomes and thus have less need for expensive means-tested benefits.
Bryant clearly understands that family structure is crucially important for the well-being of children. Now is the time for him to do something about it.
PHOTO: Sarah Formato, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mom, poses with her children Finn (C), 3, dressed in a Spiderman costume and Hollyn, 5, at her home in Aurora, Colorado July 30, 2012. REUTERS/Rick Wilking