That faith-free Times piece on single moms

It’s time for a simple poll question: OK, GetReligion readers, raise your hand if you think there is a moral and, in this culture, religious element present in most discussions of (a) sex outside of marriage, (b) cohabitation, (c) having children outside of wedlock and (d) all of the above?

I am well aware that some, if not many, Americans would deny that religious faith plays a role in these issues. I would be the last person to claim that religious faith, or the lack thereof, always plays a role in these issues.

I am simply asking if most Americans would see some connections between religious faith and practice and the moral component of these crucial social issues. It goes without saying that almost all religious leaders, teachers and believers — in all ethnic groups — would see a strong connection and, even in 21st Century America, that’s a lot of people.

However, what about the people who occupy the newsroom of The New York Times?

Not so much.

Thus, I share the concerns of GetReligion readers who sent me notes about that long, long, long and totally faith-free Times piece that ran under the headline, “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do.’ ” It is also interesting to note that this news feature also omitted a very important name (even for New Yorkers) — Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

It was Moynihan the social scientist who, back in the late 1960s, declared that, in the near future, the most important class divides in American life would not be defined by race, but by marital status. More and more, he said, poverty would be linked to one key factor — whether a child grows up in a two-parent home and, in particular, whether the child has a father.

Now, the Times notes:

The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. Most of the discussion has focused on labor market forces like falling blue-collar wages and lavish Wall Street pay.

But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility. College-educated Americans … are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women like Ms. (Jessica) Schairer, who left college without finishing her degree, are growing less likely to marry at all, raising children on pinched paychecks that come in ones, not twos.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

This is, of course, simply a matter of economics:

About 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up sharply from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a Washington research group. Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

Long concentrated among minorities, motherhood outside marriage now varies by class about as much as it does by race. It is growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class — among women like Ms. Schairer who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school. …

Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.

In large part, while the story focuses on the women, this is just as much a story about the moral choices and commitments of men. Is there a moral component missing from the lives of these love-them-then-leave-them fathers who, as the story notes, “come and go”? The women, we are told, make decisions and then have to live with them. Are there moral components to their decisions?

Once again, I am not saying that this is always a religious issue. I am asking if, in this culture, these are issues that can be fully discussed without raising religious questions and without listening to religious voices. It’s a matter of mathematics, for me.

Meanwhile, here is Schairer’s voice again:

William Penn University, eight hours away in Iowa, offered a taste of independence and a spot on the basketball team. Her first thought when she got pregnant was “My mother’s going to kill me.” Abortion crossed her mind, but her boyfriend, an African-American student from Arkansas, said they should start a family. They agreed that marriage should wait until they could afford a big reception and a long gown.

Their odds were not particularly good: nearly half the unmarried parents living together at a child’s birth split up within five years, according to Child Trends.

Ms. Schairer has trouble explaining, even to herself, why she stayed so long with a man who she said earned little, berated her often and did no parenting. They lived with family (his and hers) and worked off and on while she hoped things would change. “I wanted him to love me,” she said. She was 25 when the breakup made it official: she was raising three children on her own.

Yes, clearly this is just an economic issue. Would most readers, across the nation, agree?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    Perhaps the ghosts are more moral than religious per se. In other words, it’s possible that many of these people might believe in God, and perhaps even go to church regularly. Yet they have somehow got themselves thinking that sex, and childrearing, and living together outside of marriage are somehow not so bad or okay or that “God still loves me,” which would be true, but which doesn’t justify these actions. So maybe it’s a matter of being able to separate right from wrong.

    What I didn’t like about the article was this line:

    …the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

    It makes it sound like the “fortunate” classes are withholding marriage and its benefits from the other classes, or that married people are greedy and are actively depriving single-parent families of material comforts and hoarding them for themselves. The fact is, marriage — and the moral wherewithal to succeed at it — is associated with greater prosperity, family stability, and more effective childrearing. It is not that “fortunate classes” are hoarding benefits — but marriage is what is the very basis of being “fortunate” to begin with. Marriage does not ensure good fortunes, but it does increase the likelihood.

    There are religious ghosts however. Marriage predates every government and is a moral choice in the face of human power to pursue pleasure and live up to one’s responsibilities when doing so. It has an intrinsic religious dimension, even if people deny it. Just like physical intimacy, which as an intrinsic spousal significance, even when people reduce it to mere entertainment. Physical intimacy therefore has an intrinsic religious dimension, too, even when people treat it casually.

    Whether readers across the nation will see it that way, or agree with the NYT, I can’t say.

  • J. Lahondere

    I read through this entire article on Sunday afternoon and all I could think about was I’m glad it got posted.

    The entire story is about marriage, cohabitation, pre-marital sex and the shift in culture… And all of its conclusions seem so rudimentary that I only finished reading it just to see if there was some bigger point that I was missing.

    Obviously religion was completely (deliberately?) left out of the story, but what really baffled me was that not even morality was brought into question. Have moral attitudes towards pre-marital sex facilitated this shift? Do people no longer feel that having children out of wedlock is wrong or even bad? “Gee, people aren’t marrying as much as they used to.” Instead of asking “why?” it just gets treated like a fad.

    Maybe you think the answers to these types of questions are totally obvious and not worth asking–but anyone who read this article would know its happy to state the obvious (i.e Parents = good, single moms have less money than married ones). Leaving these questions out implies that there are no answers when in fact there are.

  • K Smith

    The article does have buried on the third page a single sentence mentioning “Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” which attributed the decline of marriage to the erosion of values.” Then the reporter merrily moves along without engaging the thesis.

    There is one other glimmer of recognition of the moral dimension when the article notes that Kevin Faulkner got serious about college (and presumably life in general) “because he wanted to marry Ms. Faulkner.” That implies that Ms. Faulkner wasn’t willing to settle for cohabitation, and Mr. Faulkner rose to the challenge. As the article puts it, “Marriage, that is, can help make men marriageable.” It made a healthier situation for both of them and their kids, on multiple levels. But if men feel like they can get what they want the lazy way, too many will take the easy route rather than the harder route that is more fulfilling long-term. They’re gorging on Twinkies, in both food and relationships. Any surprise that the result isn’t healthy?

  • Julia

    When I finished reading this yesterday, I too was wondering whether this reporter had ever heard of or read Moynihan’s startling report about families. Interesting that his report came not long after “the pill”.

    Interesting that this entire article is about what is often snidely described as kill-joys religious people’s obsession with “pelvic issues” in the culture wars.

    Third observation: where one used to read about moral or immoral actions and their consequences, we now read about “bad choices”, implying no moral content to any of this.
    Kind of like “mistakes were made” at Penn State.

    Somebody in the comments box made a very wise observation that wasn’t touched on at all in the article. Society’s pressure to be “a good girl” or to “act like a man” has fallen away in the last 4 decades or so. This is what used to keep many a naive or irresponsible person under 25 from getting themselves into messes. This societal pressure was surely connected in great part to religious teachings. Huge hole in this interesting story.

  • sari

    Religion belongs in the mix only where there’s data. The reporter profiled two mothers whose lives intersected at work. We presume that religion makes the difference and should therefore be included as a factor in the story. Do the data support our assumptions?

    Note that the single mother mentioned involvement in church both before college and in the present.

    Ms. Schairer’s life offers a vivid example of how rapidly norms have changed. She grew up in a small town outside Ann Arbor, where her life revolved around church and school and everyone she knew was married…She got pregnant during her first year of college, left school and stayed in a troubled relationship that left her with three children when it finally collapsed six years ago.

    Yet, she bore three children out of wedlock. The first may have been unplanned, but what about her subsequent pregnancies? Why bear more children without first insisting on marriage?

    The other factor to note is her son’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Disorder (minor quibble: AS is autism with speech, not mild autism). Autism spectrum disorders are more common in males and have an hereditary component. Her description of her ex-partner suggests the possibility of unremediated neurological issues that could have contributed to the relationship’s demise. Nonetheless, despite her apparent religiosity, she chose a particular path.

    GR recently critiqued an article on religious belief in the African American community. Though 70+% of the women professed belief and said that they sought to live a religious life, 70+% of African American children are born to single mothers. Among Hispanics, another group which evidences high rates of religiosity, 50+% of children are born out of wedlock. The numbers come from the U.S. Census.

    Large percentages of both groups also live in poverty and lack sufficient education. So, does religion inform their behavior or do other factors play a bigger role? The data strongly suggest a correlation between lack of education, single motherhood, and poverty. Do similar studies support a relationship between religious belief and observance and lack of poverty? I’m hesitant to include religion without supporting data.

  • JWB

    Yes, as Sari notes the story makes statements about the unmarried mother like “She rarely misses a weekend of church with the children” and “her mother served as church trustee” but says nothing at all about the religiosity-if-any of the married couple.

  • Cindy

    Thanks for dealing with this piece from the Times. When I read it I did think about the cultural and the economic issues, and I thought that faith had been, not surprisingly, ignored. But mostly I thought about all of the other ways a young woman can become a single mom besides having sex outside of marriage and besides cohabitating. A young widow has all of the same problems as Ms.(Jessica) Schairer! I wondered why the article didn’t even attempt to ask what any of us can do to help either of them. Then I answered my own question by remembering the faith-free basis.

  • Mary Sorensen

    When I read the article, I kept choking on the repeated word “equality”. That seemed to the author’s priority.

    In striving for that perfect society where everyone is equal, religion and morality just get in the way.

  • Ruj

    When I first read this story I couldn’t help but see that the religious aspect or for that matter even the moral aspect of the story was being completely ignored.

    Like a married mother and a single mother are one and the same thing with only the married mother having made a different choice of living…