Absent fathers, not working mothers, limit student achievement

By Reihan Salam
June 7, 2013

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

8 comments

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Search for Orlando Shaw, Nashville father, and tell me how you go about educating a young man like this? This is not an uncommon event in the poorer neighborhoods of the U.S.

Posted by deecue | Report as abusive

Please, give me a break!

What world do you live in? Obviously the wealthy one where people act rationally to the proper stimulus — you know, kind of like lab rats.

There are so many things wrong with this article it would literally take me a book to detail it all.

You apparently object to what Governor said, plus a lot worthless opinions of your in addition to his PC faux pas.

——————-

According to your article, he said 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.

———————

Let’s examine what he said in the context of reality:

As a general rule, it is ALWAYS bad for children when the mother works, regardless of the reason.

Why?

Because working mothers are a major underlying cause of the breakdown in this society.

For example, first and foremost, when you are talking about working mothers, you are by inference mothers who MUST work, which puts a strain on the family unit that translates into societel problems down the road.

So, let’s distinguish between those wealthy working mothers who are working by choice, not necessity, primarily because the stress of a working mother under those circumstances is very minimal and we need not concern ourselves with that segment of society.

The issue is really with poor or middle class mothers who are forced to work to “make ends meet”, whether they are single or not.

Obviously, a single mother who must work represents the most damaging scenario to society of any of them.

Let’s take a look at why a mother must work. I mean the real reasons, not the ones that are PC, which is how you and many others would like to have us and the working mothers look at it, but as the fabrication (i.e. the cover story) that conceals the economic motives of this nation.

Prior to WWII, it was rare for a woman to work outside the home, since she was needed to take care of the family while the father was at work.

During WWII many worked because there was a male labor shortage and out of patriotic duty.

The major change really came after WWII, and this is the significant difference you fail to mention.

Many women continued to work after they got married, even after children began to arrive.

Why?

At that point in time the US middle class was beginning its rise — a paradigm shift in the US, which has never had a middle class in it history because there was no opportunity for one to form — and many young married couples saw an opportunity to “get ahead”.

Thus, the financial incentives were very great if two people contributed to the family income.

However, the long-term consequences of this paradigm shift of married women working in society are NEVER mentioned, and for good reason.

For example:

– The PRIMARY REASON is that an all male workforce would command much higher salaries than a “mixed” workforce with women, and have significantly more bargaining power than with women. Thus the employers were able (are still able) to exert an inordinate influence on the American workforce than they would otherwise be capable of doing.

– A corollary to the main reason is that women can be paid much less than males in comparable jobs, a fact which improves the bottom line, especially in service industries.

– Sexual attraction and availability of extramarital affairs are increased substantially by placing men and women in close proximity on a daily basis. THIS ALONE is a major factor in the breakdown of American society.

In other words, what started out as a reasonable attempt by people to “get ahead” has boomeranged on society by creating massive social problems.

Also, people are trapped into working as a two-earner household simply to live from week to week, while the wealthy class has benefitted tremendously from this paradigm shift of women working, but all the while condemning the working mother and absent father for that which they aided and abetted.

For example, a two-earner family could afford many more consumer goods, including houses and cars, so the demand for these items has risen astronomically.

The unemployment rate would not be a problem today if women were still not a major part of the workforce. The plain fact is we have an excess labor force due to the availability of lower paid women, so why would an employer hire a male? That would make no economic sense at all.

By the same token “working mothers” are being cheated because many have no choice but to work (at reduced wages, which means longer hours and multiple jobs) instead of remaining home with their children.

ALL of this, which is but the tip of the iceberg, is why the American economy is in trouble.

Even worse, the American family itself is in trouble mainly because of a nation that wants to extract the maximum from each and every individual, regardless of what it does to peoples lives or the future of this nation.

So, don’t give me crap about absentee fathers being to blame. That is simply a red herring to cover for what this nation is doing to its own people.

Oh yeah, in case I didn’t mention it above anywhere, forcing mothers to work DOES IMPAIR STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT.

HOW COULD IT NOT?

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

I forgot to mention, your “conclusion” at the end is STUPID BEYOND BELIEF.

——————–

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.

——————–

THIS is the same pathetically tired government platitude to make people feel better.

WHAT IS THE POINT OF MORE EDUCATION IF THERE ARE NO JOBS?

HOW — EXACTLY — DO YOU THINK THAT WILL HELP THE SITUATION?

It also assumes a “one size fits all solution” will work, but it is stupid beyond belief on the face of it.

Aren’t enough people racking up student loans that they cannot afford in an effort to do what you are exhorting them to do?

Clearly, neither you nor the wealthy class understand what they are doing to this nation.

Why don’t people like you just ‘fess up and say you don’t give a crap what happens to this nation?

If you did, you wouldn’t do the things you are doing to destroy it!

Maybe the people responsible for all of this should be introduced to the criminal justice system for a change.

Now, THAT might help this nation quite a bit.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

Since you brought up the subject of “student achievement” (meaning, in its broader context the quality of US education, or lack thereof), let me pose a question that I would like to see answered in a meaningful manner.

WHY would the wealthy elite want to increase the general educational level of this nation’s students?

Notice I said general, which means those who are not born from wealthy parents, when it is far less expense to create a cheap, flexible labor force through immigration?

That and an increase in political power is what you people are really after, and you are more than willing to throw the American citizens on the sacrificial altar to get what you want.

People like you may seem concerned about student achievement, but the only student achievement you people care about are the “future leaders” of this nation, and they sure as hell aren’t coming from anywhere except from the elite class.

Strictly from an economic viewpoint — which is really the only way you people view the world — the last thing you want is a highly educated US workforce.

Everything you have done, from the outsourcing of US jobs (especially manufacturing jobs, which by the way are still in decline as of today’s job numbers) to the tax and “free trade” legislation that you pass, is strictly for the benefit of the wealthy elite in this country.

The numbers are there to support my accusation, so don’t both to deny it.

So, why would education of an American workforce be any different? The simple answer to that one is it wouldn’t be any different at all.

All the whining and moaning about the lack of a proper educational system by everyone concerned isn’t worth a “bucket of spit” and you know it.

How do you people live with yourselves?

My guess is extreme denial of what you are doing. It is what your class has done in the past to justify what is not justifiable.

My only hope is that it is about to catch up to you with this latest bout of exessive greed that is likely to crash quite soon.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

OMG!!! EconCassandra, If you are this nuts in real time, everyone RUN AWAY!!!

Posted by spankleelee | Report as abusive

There was a middle class before there were colonies. Only they were small business owners and not actually considered the working class. Women were oppressed before WWII and still are in some ways today. The all mighty straight white man is the culprit. And greed is the motivator. The media chooses who we vote for. The corporations own the media. As a matter of fact, the Koch brothers are currently trying to purchase 8 newspapers. Things will not change until all of America suffers through hard times. People are not waking up to the fact that the Democratic party and the Republican party are both working for the rich. They are puppets who have some billionaires hand on their backs controlling their every move. Americans need to open their eyes before it’s too late. The corporate agenda is in full force. They have put it in overdrive. From city to city, where they are selling public school property to the rich, to state to state where they are cutting off poor women from contraception and abortion. Governors and state legislatures nationwide are cutting funding of healthcare for the poor at the same time they are creating the poor peoples baby boom. Union busting as hard as they can in every industry. Even the police union is on their radar. Which has been seen in at least 2 cities where they have shut down whole police departments. Some cities have cut officers pay to minimum wage. The Republican party wants an all armed militia of volunteer citizens headed by elected sheriffs instead. The agenda is so terrifying that people will think your nuts if try to inform them. But, sadly, it’s quite real. Their plans include project housing for the elderly and poor. Elderly are included because they intend to close down all nursing homes. They also have job training planned for the elderly. They have churches building even more mega churches that include classrooms, an auditorium sized area filled with racks of used clothes for all of us who have to work longer hours for less pay. All the rich in every country on the globe are in on this agenda. They are scooping up all the property they can get their hands on. What they can’t purchase, they find a government backdoor into taking it. Luckily, here in Texas, a handful of Republicans put a stop to the closing of state parks. Because that was on the property grab radar. The charter school agenda was started by the Waltons. Their foundation, the Gates family foundation and others are all giving grant money to anyone who wishes to launch a charter school. You see, this is a way for Walmart to colonize those golden cities where property is hard to get. Like say, Chicago, NEW YORK CITY! Yes, the golden city with no extra land to colonize. And what is the perfect size? School property of course. And what is Rahm doing in Chicago? Closing public schools. Thank goodness, Bloomberg is onto that agenda and has started his own by posting negative walmart pieces on his site one after the other. But you can’t really trust Bloomberg either. He wants his Wall St. And Wall St is where belies the mega demon to our demise. SHAREHOLDERS. They are what hurts and destroys everything in this country. We need to stand up! We need to vote for the people the mainstream media doesn’t mention. And keep doing it until they get it right. Only WE can change the nation. So if we are going to point fingers, let’s go towards the very tippity top of the mountain where the shareholders reside and take them down.

Posted by spankleelee | Report as abusive

Well said, EconCassandra.

Two other angles on this:

1) Marx’s vision of the skilled working class being in the position to seize the means of production is rooted in what anthropologists call the ‘male group’ — highly coordinated, individually self-sacrificial, as in hunting or warring. Marx’s claim in essence was that the male group once again (as it was in the longue durée of prehistory) coincided with production… but this time, industrial production, and in a manner where it was positioned to take control.

At least, it was the coordinated muscle shown by overwhelmingly male labor force thru the 1930s that kept the 1% from finally hogging the lion’s share of surplus as we have today. That’s another angle on why the elites have embraced the feminization of workforce.

2) On a deeper level, a divide between a private, domestic sphere of biological reproduction and consumption and the public sphere of civic action is the very origin of politics — literally, the starting distinction of politics, as Aristotle lays it out and Hannah Arendt helpfully updated. The utter loss of privacy — theme of headlines this week — and the grotesque exploitation of sex for political ends (as in the fetishization of rape among the middle-classes in the West and India, comparable with the era of Jim Crow) are twinned aspects of the post-political totalitarian states that now seem to be the West’s endgame.

Posted by PatMorris | Report as abusive

I am a single mom. I am also a Veteran and I’m educated. In fact I am an academic advisor at an Allied Health school where my main demographic is 40 year old single mothers. I am from a family with both of my bio parents who are still married. I was married until my daughter started school and we divorced. He is educated and not involved. We get a check a month and a visit a year. Fine by me. I can not, nor would I want to force him to be anything other than what he is. I have worked full time and raised my daughter full time for 10 years. She is a successful, well adjusted kid who attends college while in high school. She has healthy friendships and is in a healthy relationship. She is involved in after school activities. I have taken classes as long as she remembers. I don’t ever miss a teacher meeting or event at school.

The problem isn’t about fathers or mothers or 1 parent or 2. It’s about putting our children first. My motto is “work now or pay later”. I had my fun when I was young, I have a responsibility to put my child first, and I have taken that seriously. It has not been easy but nothing worth doing well is. My first priority is my child but I work hard to provide for us. I sacrifice my personal time and my social life may not be what others enjoy, but I will not look back at this time with regret. My daughter has not lived with the fighting or awkward silences I often grew up in. She is not witnessing a man who is threatened by my ambition or success. She is being raised by a devoted mother and village of family and friends who are teaching by example how to work hard, love each other, be kind and respectful and do your best.

I have read the other replies, and I’m here to tell you that 10 or 20 years ago, I would understand what you were saying. I don’t say that I am doing the job of a father and mother, I’m just making sure that my kid gets what she needs. She sees love, she travels, she is part of a team, she knows hard work and she is safe.

I know plenty of families with a mother and father who can’t offer that.

I think the assumption that 2 working parents provide 2 incomes which means more advantage for a child is naive. I rent a lovely place. I live within my means and my kid always has what she needs. Many of her friends with huge houses and expensive cars can’t afford to do the things she does. They are house poor. I am not.

Many of her friends have a mother who stays home. I rarely see those mothers at PTA meetings, booster meetings or in the stands at events. They are consumed with their own life and don’t put their children first.
I’ve never missed a concert because I was on a “girls cruise” with girlfriends.

As a Veteran, I did everything my Marines did. I earned the respect I was given, it wasn’t required, it was just the right thing to do. Some of the remarks sound like they are coming from people stuck in the 50s, so I’m not sure you’ve seen the news. Women like me are the reason that women today are going to be able to do ANYTHING in the Military that a man can do.

Back to my home…..I can change a lightbulb, kill a spider, and check the oil in the car. Please tell me what we are missing without a man in the house?

Posted by criskrep | Report as abusive