Single Parent vs Married Families: Stop the Comparisons

Some headlines just beg a clicking, for better or for worse. Marriage: America’s best antidote to child poverty, was one of those. In this piece, the Heritage Foundation presents the argument that because a disproportionate number of families with children living in poverty are single parent ones vs married ones, the United States should advance policies that promote and reward marriage.

Frankly, suggesting marriage as the solution to poverty because a high number of those in poverty are unwed is like promoting becoming white as a solution to poverty because a high number of those in poverty are nonwhite.

I had written a post responding to this “fact sheet” until it dawned on me their argument is completely invalid because their research is wrong. As a matter of fact, most studies on single parent households are wrong.

When you are doing a study and you are seeking to compare and contrast, your study’s strength relies on the variables and controls. In other words, if you want to determine whether or not drinking food colored water affects the health of mice, you have to make sure your mice are very similar and eat exactly the same diet with one exception– what they drink. Group A drinks regular water, Group B drinks food colored water, and Group C drinks neither regular or food colored water but orange juice.

So what does this have to do with single parent studies? Too many variables.

If you really want to arrive at concrete conclusions on the differences between single and married families, you need to reduce as many variables as possible– especially income since income is critical in a capitalist economy. Get the data on families with two children making $35,000 a year. What are the differences between married and unmarried households there? Get the data on families with two children making $50,000 a year. What are the differences between married and unmarried households there? Get the data on families with two children making $100,000 year a year. What are the differences between married and unmarried households there? Get the data on families with two children making $250,000 a year. What are the differences between married and unmarried households there?

My gut tells me that the more variables you remove, the more similarities there are. In other words, a house where both parents work full-time, have two children, and make $50,000 a year is probably very similar to a house where there is only one parent, that parent works full-time, has two children, and makes $50,000 a year.

People promoting “traditional values” as the solution to poverty and other problems in society have it backward. If you want to preach anything, you need to make sure you have an audience that is ready to listen. And that means having an audience that is not worried about the next meal, the next light bill, the next trip to the gas pump, or the next illness. You want to reduce the number of unwed families? Ok, no problem. Get them to a place where their life is easier so they have the time, energy, and self-esteem needed to find a good marriage partner. In other words, you don’t solve poverty with marriage. You solve single parenthood by reducing or eliminating poverty.

What do you think is a better indicator of a family experience– income or marriage status? Do you think marriage translates into more money? I can’t help but think of this other piece where a couple left their toddlers at home while they went to get married. Why? Because they are both unemployed and in Florida if you’re unmarried you need to have a child support agreement in enforcement to collect state benefits. In my mind, broke is broke– doesn’t matter if it’s two people or one. Am I missing something here?


12 thoughts on “Single Parent vs Married Families: Stop the Comparisons

  1. This is a great piece. I HATE these studies for the reasons you discuss — there is so much they don’t take into consideration. What about the arguing that goes on between two married people who aren’t making enough money? What about a single mom who makes the same as the married couple so there is actually a bit more to go around? Finally, I just really hate the implication that any marriage is better than a single parent household.

  2. Amen. Here’s a link to some light 😉 reading on the subject: . There were also some interesting links somewhere recently (afraid I cannot remember why) basically highlighting the fact that in the case of previously-married (to one another) now-divorced parents of dependent kids, the relevant comparison is between parents who are candidates for divorce (presumably based on inter-spousal tensions, disagreements, etc.) and those who actually did divorce, not between the divorced and the married since divorce does not, in fact, occur at random (any more than does marriage).

    Personally I’d like to see a world where we focus on providing support (I mean that term generally and not explicitly financially, though I’d include $$$ in the concept) to parents (and to children) regardless of their (their parents’) marital status and where we don’t treat being unmarried or being divorced as socially “less than,” as I suspect that such treatment contributes to the discrepancies between the groups. But I’m funny that way (among others!).

  3. Well, it is the Heritage Foundation’s study, and they are a conservative think tank so of course they come to such a conclusion. The whole “nuclear family” bullsh*t is really getting stale. Although, if they think marriage is a solution to child poverty…maybe they should be in favor of all kinds of marriages, including same sex marriages. 😉

    • Yeah I was definitely pretty aware of what I was going to be reading when I saw it was a Heritage piece. I’m really tired of the nuclear family talk too. The nuclear family is a really Western and modern invention. It hasn’t ALWAYS been a thing. I like your point about same sex marriages LOL

  4. You are right. And you think like an economist!

    There’s a couple great papers on this topic in economics that use sex of first child as an instrument for divorce. Couples are less likely to divorce if they have a boy. These studies find that on average, families do about the same with or without the divorce. However, if you look separately, some women do a lot better with the divorce (and eventually end up marrying higher quality husbands) and some women do worse.

    Of course, one of these conservative think tanks got hold of the paper that finds some people do better and some people do worse and only focused on the negative half!

    • Thinking like an economist is definitely a compliment so thank you
      That’s interesting about sex of first child. Mine is a boy so there I go going against the grain again. I would not doubt in the least that many women’s situations are improved by divorce just as many others are worsened. And of course they focused on the negative– exploding the nuclear family concept is really scary.

  5. Yup. And how about the fact that a bunch of divorces occur because of financial reasons (ie, one spouse is driving the other to the poorhouse and it takes years to recover). My mom was better off financially after my drinking gambling dad was out of the picture. As was my high school friend who’s ex used her house downpayment money to buy a Corvette. And you have your own version of these stories as well.

    It is harder to get ahead on one income…no doubt about it, but I don’t see how that links to marriage other than if you are a single parent you have more child care expenses than one with a stay at home partner.

    • Oh yeah I definitely have my own versions of those stories– both kinds actually. The big difference would definitely be in comparison to a married household where one works and the other is a caretaker and even that would be interesting to see just how much the stay at home parent offsets childcare costs but that sort of study would be more relevant to married households considering a stay at home partner than to single parent households.
      I think that it can be harder to get by on one income but it’s also easier to get by on one spender too. Like you mentioned with your mom’s experiences for example. I know my life is a lot calmer knowing I don’t have to be wary of someone else spending money that was budgeted for something else.

  6. I don’t necessarily like the idea that I need another parent to make my family complete, but there are real issues with single parenting that make parenting both easier and more difficult and they stem from the same main point: I’m all alone.

    I’m all alone in managing doctor appointments, social schedules, homework loads, etc.

    I’m all alone in earning income (theoretically giving me less free time than if I had a partner).

    I’m all alone in deciding how to handle big issues like discipline.

    But I independently get to decide how doctor appointments, social schedules, homework loads should be handled.

    I independently get to prioritize how the money is spent.

    I independently get to chose how those big issues should resolve.

    I’m alone and stressed, it’s hard to raise a child by yourself. But I also don’t have to consult anyone else on how to make those decisions.

    Many of the “issues” with single parenting that are listed can be “resolved” with another parent, but my question is….who says I want to?

    Then again, at 3am with a vomiting child and no backup relief the small voice inside my head says…..I do.

    • It really does seem for every pro there’s an equal con doesn’t it? Even when the child is vomiting– sometimes the “relief” just makes things worse. The more I look at the experiences of different families the more my gut tells me it isn’t that one is better than the other, it’s that they are different. As long as there is one thing at play and that is the parent(s) love their children. I think that’s the key factor to what works and what doesn’t.


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