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Improving The Lives Of Single Moms And Their Kids


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Isabel Sawhill argued that then-Vice President Dan Quayle was right 20 years ago when he criticized television character Murphy Brown's decision to become a single mom. Sawhill cited statistics that show children in a two-parent family do better at school, then later in life.

Others argue that parental income is a much better way to gauge kids' prospects, whether that's two parents or one, but rather than revisit old arguments, let's accept that on average, millions of single parents, the vast majority of them mothers, are poorer, squeezed for time and that their children face more difficulty.

So what's the best way to help them? If you're a single mom, what advice would you give to other single mothers? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, online classes from top colleges, where you can take tests, ask questions and get a grade, all for free.

But first, Isabel Sawhill joins us here in Studio 3A. She's co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, and it's nice to have you with us today.

ISABEL SAWHILL: Thank you, nice to be here.

CONAN: And for whatever reason, the number of single mothers is going up. What's the best way to improve the prospects for them and their kids?

SAWHILL: Well, I think that there are certain things we should be doing for single parents. I think their biggest need is child care, because most of them are going to have to work. That's almost inevitable if you're a single parent. And what are you going to with your kids while you're at work? Some of them are in low-wage jobs and thus can't afford decent childcare for their kids. So I would say that's a high priority in my book.

CONAN: We heard a cut of tape at the beginning of the show from a woman who needed to get at least eight credits in a college course so she could qualify for the student discount for the childcare that she needed, otherwise couldn't afford because of her fulltime job. That doesn't leave an awful lot of time for a child.

SAWHILL: It doesn't leave much time, and if you are a low-income worker, a very large proportion of your income has to be set aside just to pay your childcare expenses.

CONAN: And this is - as you look at the statistics, it's becoming the new norm for women under 30.

SAWHILL: It is becoming the new norm. Over half, a little over half, right now, of all babies born in America, are born outside of marriage. And so when I wrote the piece for the Washington Post that you mentioned a moment ago, what was concerning is when this does become the new norm, how do we manage?

It's not as if the taxpayers who are in two-parent families can afford to pay for the other half of taxpayers that are in one-parent families. That isn't going to work.

CONAN: It's not going to work. So we need to look at structural solutions. And obviously, you've got to deal with the people who are there now, too.

SAWHILL: I really want to make a distinction between the people who are single parents right now, many of them not by their own choice, and we should be helping them. Really the focus of my article for the Post was on what we should be saying to younger people who haven't made these decisions yet.

And I think it's important for them to understand that being a single parent is very hard, and it's going to be better for them and better for their kids if they find a stable, committed relationship, that we often call marriage, before they have kids.

CONAN: And obviously individuals vary, and outcomes for some kids with single parents are terrific. The majority of the cases, though, not so good.

SAWHILL: Exactly, and that's another thing I'm glad you've emphasized, because we're talking averages here. Obviously, there are married parents who do a lousy job raising kids and single parents who do a great job.

CONAN: Also with us here in Studio 3A is Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. He studies families and inequality. He writes a blog by that name and joins us in the studio. Nice to have you with us today.

PHILIP COHEN: Oh, thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: And what's the best way to help the people who are single parents, single moms for the most part, now and in the future?

SAWHILL: Well, I think it's important for us to try to get beyond wringing our hands over the decline of marriage. The government hasn't been able to do very much of anything to reverse that trend, despite kicking millions of people off welfare. That was supposed to encourage marriage. Promoting marriage through the Healthy Marriage Initiative and so on.

CONAN: It was supposed to encourage other things, too, of course.

COHEN: Right, no, it was very successful at encouraging work, but if you look back at what they were saying at the time, it was about encouraging marriage, also. But I think if you look at the benefits of marriage, which are very real, if you break them down, you find that many of them are not - are quite tangible. They're not mysterious.

And as Isabel said, childcare is one of them, time - but also security, health insurance, stable housing. These are among the things that are transferred from married parents to their children in terms of benefits, and those are the things where we should try to focus our energies rather than worrying about the marital status of the parents.

CONAN: There are programs, Isabel Sawhill, to try to encourage fathers to take a more active role in their children's lives.

SAWHILL: There are those kinds of fatherhood programs, but there also have been marriage promotion programs, as Philip says. They were started during the Bush administration. Many of them have now been evaluated and found to not produce a whole lot. So I would agree with him that we shouldn't really be trying to promote marriage, through government programs, at least.

That's different than the media or other adult leaders sending a message that marriage might be a good environment for kids.

CONAN: The media, that's notoriously difficult to control, Philip Cohen.

COHEN: Yes it is, but I think that's an important distinction to make. If you're giving somebody advice, and if you're planning out your life, and if you're listening to this and thinking about the choices that you have to make, in our current environment, marriage brings many benefits.

Now of course, lots of people are going to be able to have those benefits without it, but that is a far cry from a government policy. And I just want to point out that the Healthy Marriage Initiative took money from the welfare program, to the tune of several hundred million dollars, to promote marriage. And the studies on its effectiveness that Isabel mentioned have shown it to be not very successful.

CONAN: Well, no one may know more about this than single moms themselves. We're asking them to call in with advice for others in their situation, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Let's start with Lee(ph), and Lee's on the line with us from Portland.

LEE: Hi, actually, I'm the daughter of a single parent, but I think, actually, sometimes kids know more when they get to be grownups looking back at their lives. My mom was a single mom. I watched all her friends, you know, date, and then my mom didn't date. I agree with everything your panelists have said. The other thing that mothers, single mothers, can do for themselves is not date.

It just never turned out well for the kids of the families of the mothers who dated.

CONAN: That's a hard stricture to follow.

LEE: Yeah, it is, but the thing of it also is that, you know, when you try a marriage that's already set and then has the kids, is one thing; but trying to blend a family and all the dating that goes on and all the relational ups and downs that lead towards a marriage and then usually didn't lead towards a marriage, left the kids feeling like they were more on the periphery than they would have been if their mothers just hadn't dated.

And it was a much more solid, a much more solid upbringing that I got than my friends did, who went through two or three - or even one - stepfather.

CONAN: Yet if marriage is the best way to help, two incomes, two parents, that's not going to happen if there's no dating.

LEE: Well, but that's what I'm saying is that the marriages that are established when they have the kids, you don't have all the other dynamics that are going on. But when you have a single mom who's trying to date and raise her children, the ones that will suffer, the ones that I saw suffer time and time again and the ones that I continue to see suffering as an adult, are the ones where they tried to make a marriage work after the kids were in place.

CONAN: I see.

LEE: And I'm not talking about the father of those children. I'm talking about--

CONAN: Stepfather.

LEE: ...trying to have a new husband and a new family, and it just didn't work out for the kids.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the call, it illustrates the difficulty of the situation. And are there statistics, Philip, on this?

COHEN: Well, remarriages don't have a very good track record, probability-wise, that's certainly true. And blended families don't have the same obvious advantages in the numbers that first-marriage families do. But I think one of the important points there is that one of the things we should be glad about in the decline of marriage is that there are fewer people who are forced into marriage or compelled into marriage because of economic distress, especially women.

So women's increased earning potential and opportunities have opened up a lot of doors, including not to be married. And I think if people are feeling compelled to get married because of economic circumstances, that probably doesn't bode as well for the marriage as one would hope.

CONAN: Here's an email from Bruce(ph) in Portland: By single parent, you mean single female parent. Where are the fathers of these children? These conversations are always aimed at women, while men get off scot-free. Again, the vast majority of single parents are female, but yes, of course, there was somebody else involved in the conception, Isabel Sawhill.

SAWHILL: Sure, there are as many absent fathers as there are single mothers or almost because, of course, some of the fathers have died. But it is still very much the case that most single parenthood is a female phenomenon, although the number of single dads is growing.

CONAN: Are there improved ways to - you don't enforce - I mean, child support, get fathers more involved. These have been unsuccessful, no?

SAWHILL: Well, we've gotten much tougher with respect to child support, and there is research that suggests that's actually discouraged some early childbearing and some male irresponsibility, which I think is a good thing. On the other hand, oftentimes the child support award is so large that the dads involved really can't afford to pay it, and so they go underground or really stop interacting with the family. So it's a two-edged sword.

CONAN: Here's another email, this one from Nancy(ph): I think the best way to help single parents is for employers to offer flexible hours, nine to three for parents of young children, then fulltime as children get older. Employers, are they responsive to the needs of single parents, Philip?

COHEN: Some are, and some aren't. There's a whole suite and a whole patchwork of approaches, and not one standard. To get back to something Isabel mentioned at the beginning that relates to that is the problem of childcare. We have a cycle of a childcare availability crisis, which has to do with the high expense of childcare compared to the low income of many single parents.

And the obvious approach to that is for a government intervention in terms of a childcare subsidy or credit. If you could do that, I think you would ease the scheduling problems and pressures that a lot of single parents face.

CONAN: Or a tax write-off for companies to provide childcare onsite or something like that.

COHEN: Exactly, and I think that also brings - the caller's point about the child's perspective is extremely important here. From the child's perspective, if the state is pursuing the irresponsible father unsuccessfully and says, oh well, we can't get him, that doesn't really help the child very much.

CONAN: If you're a single parent, again we're going to accept most of you are moms, what advice would you give to other single mothers? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News; I'm Neal Conan. We're talking about single parents, the majority of them mothers, and the challenges they face. If you're a single mom, what advice would you give to other single mothers? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website, npr.org.

Our guests are Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the center for children and families at the Brookings Institution. She wrote a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, "Twenty Years Later, Dan Quayle Was Right About Murphy Brown and Unmarried Moms." There's a link to that at our website, at npr.org. Also with us, Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. He writes the blog Family Inequality. And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go to Ethan, Ethan calling from Denver.

ETHAN: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

ETHAN: I'm actually, I'm a single father, and I have a seven-year-old kiddo, and I found that - kind of a tumultuous situation that I have the kiddo. The best thing that I can do for myself was going back to school, and I feel like that's probably the best advice that I could give to any single parent at this point because I feel like it allows you flexibility in your schedule to be able to hang out with your children, as well as give you opportunity for Pell grants, student loans and federal assistance that can kind of help you out in the long run.

CONAN: And how long did you do that?

ETHAN: Well, I'm actually currently - I'm actually finishing up my last year of medical school right now with my kiddo. So the first two years he was with his mom, but I do have him now, and it's certainly been tough. I mean, I feel like undergrad it was a lot easier to do, and I did one year of master's program, which was amazingly easy to have enough time to spend with my son.

But my most recent decision probably hasn't really led to being able to be the most attentive, but I'm happy that I can do it and hang out with my son, as well as, you know, get job training and education to kind of put myself in a better position and be able to provide that for the kiddo when he gets older.

CONAN: I can understand that, but you're about to go into some ferocious hours as an intern.

ETHAN: This is true. Yeah, so, I mean, it's certainly concerning what's going to be happening in the next potential three years, but fortunately, it's been a long enough road, I suppose, since the disillusions, so to speak, of the relationship with my son's mom that I feel like things have normalized, and we're civil with each other and can kind of work out help, you know, meet the needs of our son.

But yeah, it's certainly - I've got a lot of thinking to do for the next year ahead.

CONAN: Isabel Sawhill?

SAWHILL: Who has legal custody? Do you have joint custody, or you alone have custody, or what?

ETHAN: Actually, we're working under joint custody right now. So that kind of gives us a lot more flexibility, I feel.

SAWHILL: Would you recommend that other parents try joint custody?

ETHAN: I would. I think by and large - I mean, I understand the circumstances, and when a relationship ends, it's usually not under good terms, and so there's going to be a lot of hard feelings. But at some point you have to kind of get past yourself, I feel like, and look out what's in the best interest of the kiddo, and that means, you know, getting over it as quickly as possible so that you can still work as two parents taking care of a child, even if you're not in a relationship or in the same house.

CONAN: Does your ex-wife feel sometimes as if she is subsidizing your student career with her time?

ETHAN: You know, I'm not sure. I don't think so. I - we have a very - fortunately, and I think another bit of advice would be to make sure you get an attorney to kind of work out sort of the grounds, rather than letting the state or the government actually sort of negotiate the terms of the separation and child support because I feel like that's sort of a lose-lose situation for everybody, and if you can afford to have an attorney go in and be able to draw up an agreement, it's more likely that it's going to be better for everybody.

And so - but that being said, I don't think that she feels like she's subsidizing. The obligation for child support is really very low.

CONAN: OK, well, in any case, there's an agreement on that, so she's living up to her part of the deal. Well, good luck, and any idea what you're going to try to specialize in?

ETHAN: I'm looking at internal medicine for the time being.

CONAN: Well, good luck with that. My father was an internist, so...

ETHAN: Well, great, thanks so much.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Gianna(ph), Gianna with us from San Antonio.

GIANNA: Hi, I was just listening to the show and I just want to make a comment about what I thought would really help single parents. I had my son my sophomore year in college. I was an engineering major. I was also in ROTC, and I was working 35 hours a week. And the biggest problem for me was not being able to afford childcare.

I know this was mentioned, but I just wanted to re-emphasize that, that it was so important. If I had had - like onsite at the school I was at, they didn't have childcare there, and then the place I took my son, it was really, really expensive, and between being at work and being at school, it was very hard. I had to spend so much time with him at childcare. That would have helped me immensely. So...

CONAN: I was just going to ask, when did you sleep?


GIANNA: I didn't get a lot of sleep. I don't know sometimes how I got through all of that. But I - you know, luckily for me since I was in ROTC, I knew I was going to be on active duty once I graduated, and that helped me. I didn't have to worry about finding a job after. I just had to make it through that time. But the childcare was just cost-prohibitive, almost.

And there was times where I couldn't go to school, or I couldn't go to work because I didn't have the money to pay for the childcare. And it was fortunate he was young, so he didn't really remember me not being there during that time, which is why I kind of was able to just press forward. It's easier when they're young, I think. But that would help so much to have childcare no matter what it is you're doing.

And, you know, I was listening to the previous caller, Ethan, talk about, you know, going back to school. That was important. You know, obviously, it enables you to get to someplace where you're going to have benefits and be able to take care of that child whether their father or mother is there or not, whether they pay their child support or not. You can get kind of a better job with benefits.

So that was - I mean, I actually qualified for welfare for like six months, and then they said I made 50 cents too much money, and I got kicked off. So that's when it got really hard.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much, and I hope things are going better now.

GIANNA: They're much better now, thanks.

CONAN: Thanks very much, appreciate it. The option of going back to school clearly a good choice if available, not available to a lot of people, Philip Cohen.

COHEN: Well, I think it's important to realize that there are different ways of investing in children's future. It can be direct through their own education and care, and it can also be through investment in the skills and opportunities of the parents. And if we can cross that hurdle of public recognition that we have a collective interest in that kind of investment, I think we'll be much better off and find that, like with good-quality childcare, making education available to single parents may translate into not only economic benefits for them but future benefits for the children.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Ann(ph), Ann with us from Boulder.

ANN: Hi, there.


ANN: First of all, I want to qualify: I am both a single mother and have actually been in that position twice, but I also am one of the first and only father's rights lawyers in the country. And so my advocacy is for fathers and their children. So that's where my comments come from.

And gosh, I wish you had asked Gianna where the dad of that child was while she was looking for childcare. One of the things that I always built into all of my orders for my guys was the right of first refusal, that if the child needed childcare that they be given the opportunity to provide that.

And I also want to give a quick shout-out to Ethan because I did law school as a single parent, and it is a tough row to hoe, but, boy, what an example you're setting for your kids.

So my advice to single parents, particularly single mothers, is that it is their job, it's their duty and obligation, I would say, to facilitate their children's relationships with their father because children need both parents. And if they don't have access to their father without a lot of anger on the mother's part, it's just going to mess them up forever.

CONAN: Isabel Sawhill, I'm sure you would agree.

SAWHILL: I definitely agree, and I think that these various stories that we're hearing from single moms and single dads is this is a tough row to hoe. And again, I would emphasize that the ideal is not to have to juggle everything. You know, it would be better, for example, if you were going to go to medical school, and this may not have been possible in Ethan's case, I understand that, but still, if you're talking to the younger generation, you want to encourage them to go to medical school before they have a child because as you suggested, medical school education, an internship and having full-time care of a child is almost an impossibility.

I mean, I can't imagine doing it.

CONAN: And Philip Cohen, so often the arrival of a child limits parents' economic fortunes as they then have to go to work to start to support a family, which is something they didn't anticipate.

COHEN: Right, well, it's interesting you use the phrase work. You know, we just got through another cycle of debating about the value of motherhood and the work of motherhood. It is important to realize how much work it is, and we need to find ways to get that work done.

It doesn't have to be done in many ways by the parent, but for all the talk of how valuable motherhood is, when we break it into its component parts, cooking and cleaning and changing diapers, we find it is - it's performed by the people in the lowest-wage jobs in our economy.

So there is a real problem with valuing this work, and I think the more we can do that both in the culture and with policy, the better off.

CONAN: Ann, thanks very much for the call.

ANNE: Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Rebecca(ph), Rebecca calling from Detroit.


CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

REBECCA: Hi. Thank you. I wanted to mention just how important supporting the children emotionally. I'm a teacher, as well as a single mother of two boys. And the fathers are not a part at all. And instead of harping on the absent, we celebrate each other as a family unit. And for Father's Day, we celebrate Big Brother Day and Little Brother Day, and we make cards. And if there's any school function or project, they make it towards each other.

CONAN: And again, so the dad is completely out of the picture?

REBECCA: Correct.

CONAN: And his choice or yours?

REBECCA: Not my choice at all. Just absent - walked away.

CONAN: Well, I'm sorry for that. But it seems like you've come up with some creative solutions to try to deal with it.

REBECCA: Yes. And it's a juggling act, working 12 hours a day, and, in fact, I'm picking up one and holding him now. But just never let the children see you upset and stressed out, and just celebrate them and make it as normal as possible.

CONAN: Thanks very much. That's great advice.

REBECCA: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's go to this email, and this is from Suzy(ph): The woman who says she had a better bringing up because her single mother didn't date is not living in the real world. I'm a widow. My children have not been harmed in any way by my dating. In fact, they have benefited from having a mother who's happier than four years ago when their father died and from the respectful attention of another adult. The best advice I can give other single parents is to build a healthy village for your children to live in.

And, of course, that's a reference to the "It Takes a Village" book of several years ago from then-first lady Hillary Clinton. And if that's the possibility, Philip Cohen, the idea of getting other people involved and family members involved in daycare and family members and friends to help you around, that's - particularly to be male role models - that's very important.

COHEN: Well, I think so. And you see - in this recession, we've seen, for example, a lot of people doubling up in housing and moving in with extended families and all the solutions that people cobble together. I don't like to see us assume that people are going to be able to do that or base policy around it, but definitely will celebrate the efforts of people who try.

CONAN: Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Isabel Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, are our guests. They're here in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Zambi(ph) is on the line, calling from Charleston.

ZAMBI: Hi. I'd like to make a comment regarding if I could give advice to single mothers, what would I say. As a very unexpectedly single mother after 25 years of marriage and two late-life sons, I would recommend to single mothers everywhere put as much of your income as you possibly can, regardless of the source, if it's child support, salary, combination, wherever it's coming from.

One thing I have not regretted is putting as much as possible into the housing situation. That is a way to buy your way up. I was previously moderately well-to-do. Now I am significantly under the poverty level, but I do not regret in any way putting as much of whatever I can get my hands on into the housing situation.

That has bought up the possibility for my two sons. One, who's a senior in high school, will be applying to MIT and Harvard. Their educational opportunities, their social opportunities, everything across the board has improved because we live on a budget so tight, except for what I put into housing.

So cut it, if you can, on groceries, cut gas, use public transportation, anything that you can so that you can put that into housing. And in my own experience, that has significantly improved our quality of life.

CONAN: And are you renting or could you afford to buy a house?

ZAMBI: Oh, no, no, no. I was completely without any resources, so we rented immediately.

CONAN: And that gives you the opportunity, if you spend more on a - an apartment in a better neighborhood, more expensive apartment, to get a better school, presumably.

ZAMBI: Absolutely. School, playmates. When I'm away at work, which previously I was not, I was - I had both my children after 40. So I - the deal was I was to be a stay-at-home mom, but that didn't work out that way. My divorce was very unexpected. And as a result - for example, in the summer, when my older son is not at his part-time job, I know my kids are safe. I know they're with good people. I know who's here.

Just across the board, anything that you could possibly name has improved. Medical care. You know, I'm closer to good medical care, closer to good schools, closer to people that I want my children to be with. So it's been a great thing, and - but at the same time, you know, we had to go to food banks occasionally. We'll live on rice and beans, use public transportation, whatever it takes, so that I can guarantee that the housing situation is going to be above par...

CONAN: Well...

ZAMBI: ...or at least as above par as I can get.

CONAN: Well, we wish your son the best of luck at MIT. Thanks very much for the call.

ZAMBI: Well, he's just in the application process, but I'll take the luck.

CONAN: Oh. OK. OK. Thanks very much for the call.

ZAMBI: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Philip Cohen, that - her situation where previously well-to-do, then below the poverty level, that is not atypical.

COHEN: No, it's not, especially with foreclosures and the unemployment crisis that we've had in recent years. It goes to show that individuals can plan as much as they want, but even if you make all the best decisions, it's not - it's - there are no guarantees. And that's why I will always keep coming back to the safety net issues.

CONAN: Here's an email that we have from Amelia(ph) in Santa Rosa: I'm a child of divorced parents, but I would not say they were alone in raising my sister and I. My dad lives around the corner from my mom. My parents have a good working relationship. My sister and I switched parents every other day. We would all go on vacations together. I think that remaining civil with one another and being adults and the goal of having both parents equally for both of us was key in my sister and I growing up. Neither of them wanted to be absent in our upbringing. And if there's going to be single parenting, it's hard to imagine a better situation than that.

This from Kim in Jenison, Michigan: I'm a truly single mom. My ex-husband committed suicide when my children were eight and 11 years old. My advice is two-fold: Stop looking for your next husband and develop a community for your children. My church and extended family raised my children as much as I did.

Teachers and coaches were instrumental, particularly male teachers, raising my son. We got through high school with no police at the door, no traffic accidents or violations, no pregnancies, had a lot of fun and success. You can be a single parent and make it work. My distinct advantage was in having an education myself that provided solid employment - not luxury, solid employment. And education of a single parent, that's a key element of how well their children are going to do.

Or anyway, Isabel Sawhill, thanks very much for your time today. I'm sorry we're out of time. Thanks to everybody who called and wrote, and we're sorry we couldn't get to more of your calls. Our thanks as well to Philip Cohen, and we appreciate their time with us today. Up next, how to get a Stanford education, at least in one course, for free. We'll talk with professor Andrew Ng. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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