Counterpoint: No numbers, only words, in appraising single-parent households

There is, in fact, quantitative analysis applicable to a recent commentary, but this is an issue that also can (and should) be discussed qualitatively — and with grace. 

This Counterpoint originally appeared in the Star Tribune on September 21, 2018.

The Star Tribune recently ran a commentary by a Detroit Free Press writer, Nancy Kaffer, titled “What everyone gets wrong about single moms” (Sept. 17). Joining with another writer, Alicia Guevara-Warren, a project director with Kids Count in Michigan, the two make fair points about how quantitative data — such as how many children are growing up with only one parent — can only tell us so much about how kids are doing. And that qualitative data — “details about people’s lived experiences,” as Guervara-Warren puts it — are essential to more fully understanding what young people face.

I agree on both points, though not surprisingly since some of my professors assumed the only quantitative information I liked was page numbers. This drove some of them batty, but I managed to finish anyway.

In that light, and with nary a number in sight, permit me to use only words in annotating five points Kaffer and/or Guervara-Warren make, even though their last four points are the subjects of extensive quantitative research.

• Kaffer cites how the Rev. Jasper Williams, at Aretha Franklin’s funeral a few weeks ago, called single-parent households “abortion after birth.” (Franklin, as just about everyone in the church knew, was a single parent.) I had heard that someone at the service had said something atrocious, but I didn’t know it was this atrocious. It reminded me of how an otherwise sensible scholar once urged, in a distinguished journal, that the word “bastardy” be substituted for terms such as “out-of-wedlock births” and “nonmarital births.” No, it should not have been, and happily it hasn’t.

If there is one fundamental rule in talking or writing about family fragmentation, it’s that it must be done not just with courage but with grace. This is the case not just for rhetorical reasons, but deeply intrinsic ones. Too bad the not-so-good Reverend didn’t live by that golden rule.

• In writing about single-parent households, Kaffer notes that the “other” parent in such situations is not necessarily “absent,” as is routinely claimed. She is correct, as a father may, in fact, live under the same roof with his children without being married to their mother, who also lives there. But what are the chances he still will live there a year down the road? Three years? Five years? What are the chances he will remain there for as long as married fathers do on average? Common sense says he won’t stick around similarly long. (As does quantitative research, by the way.)

• What about divorced parents who live apart but share custody? The Census Bureau says such arrangements constitute single-parent households, but Kaffer questions whether that’s wholly accurate, given that both parents are presumably engaged with their children to one degree or another. But do nonresident parents generally remain as engaged with their sons and daughters as resident parents do? Common sense says no. (As does quantitative research.)

• Kaffer questions the wisdom and fairness of categorizing unmarried couples living with their biological children as single-parent households. But do cohabiting couples, on average, stay together for as long as married couples do? Common sense says no. (As does quantitative research.)

• Guervara-Warren argues that “also not captured in some of this data is parents who are remarried to a stepparent.” But aren’t stepfamilies frequently hard on everyone, both kids and parents, with girls often encountering more painful problems than boys? Once again common sense says yes. (As does quantitative research once again.)

It’s imperative to recognize that millions of American kids growing up in single-parent households are doing great and that millions of kids growing up in two-parent households are doing lousy. But on decided average, boys and girls fortunate to live with both their parents under the same roof until they’re 18 do better than peers who do not.

Seeming to reduce profound questions of family fragmentation to matters of odds might seem to trivialize them, but in real ways that’s what this powerfully important debate turns on, inescapably. So, it’s not entirely unreasonable for writers to suggest that family fragmentation may not be as severe a problem as absolutist critics like the Rev. Williams declare, though he does so in uglier ways than anyone I know. But it can be badly misleading to suggest, as Kaffer and Guervara-Warren do, that enormous numbers of boys and girls growing up in fragmented families does not constitute an enormous American and human crisis.

Mitch Pearlstein is founder and senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.