COMMENTARY: Diana was nervous as she spoke to the nearly 400 people gathered at our 5th annual KIDS COUNT Conference. As part of the panel discussion on women’s economic security and child well-being, Diana shared her frustration when, after a decade of working in the early education field and rising to the level of assistant director, she was still earning minimum wage. Her only raises, she said, came from changes in minimum wage laws.
But this wasn’t the part of her story that I found most powerful. What really stuck with me was when she told us about having to become a single parent after surviving a domestic violence attack.
Like many women, being a single parent isn’t a choice for Diana. It’s a necessity if she is to survive. Not every domestic violence victim is so fortunate. On average, three women are killed every day in the United States by a current or former domestic partner, according to reports by the Violence Policy Center.
I commend Diana for her courage, strength and determination to make a life for herself and her daughter that is free from violence. But not everyone would see her and her actions in the same heroic light. In fact, Diana’s story reminded me of a recent, reprehensible and ill-informed blog I had the displeasure to read. It came out just after the release of the 2017 national KIDS COUNT Data Book, which ranked New Mexico near the bottom in child well-being. This ranking is due in large part to our high rate of child poverty.
The Rio Grande Foundation (RGF) thought the Data Book release offered an opportunity to conduct what some might classify as “victim-blaming” in their Errors of Enchantment blog. The title of the post said it all: “It’s the Single Parenting, Stupid.” For those who don’t want to add to the libertarian organization’s web traffic by clicking on the above link, I’ll summarize the blog for you here (or you can read it on the KRWG website): The three states with the worst KIDS COUNT rankings — Mississippi, New Mexico and Louisiana — also rank highest on illegitimacy. (No, you’re not having a flashback to the 1950s; they actually use the word “illegitimacy.”)
Naturally, and without offering any data to back it up, they determined that there must be a direct correlation.
It is true that more American children live in single-parent homes these days than ever before and that the vast majority of single parents are women. More births occur out of wedlock, more couples are getting married after they’ve started a family (or not getting married at all), and more couples are getting divorced.
It’s also true that children living in single-parent households are more likely to live in poverty than children in married-parent households. While these changes in the social fabric are relatively new — most occurring since the 1960s — the RGF seems to forget that poverty is not new.
Poverty has been with us for centuries. What’s more, poverty in America has actually declined since the 1960s, despite the fact that single-parenthood has increased significantly since then. It has also been since the 1960s, not coincidentally, that divorce laws have become more lax, that women have fought their way into the workforce and forced societal changes in the way we view domestic violence, including enactment of new laws.
While the RGF may harken back to some wistful Leave it to Beaver view of the 1950s for their historical context, reality was much different then. Women didn’t leave their abusive husbands because suing for divorce was a costly process, they often had no way to provide for themselves if they did manage to get free, and they had little hope that law enforcement officials or courts would try to keep them safe afterward.
Of course, the oppression of women has taken many forms beyond domestic violence. For centuries, not only could women not vote, but they could not maintain lawful possession of any money they had inherited, could not own land, could not attend most colleges, and could be locked up in asylums simply for disobeying their husbands or fathers. That is the bitter reality of RGF’s romanticized past when widows were the only socially acceptable single mothers.
So, yes, Rio Grande Foundation: women now have options. And, yes, one of those options is to have and raise a child outside of the traditional bonds of marriage. That is not the problem. Let me repeat myself: that women have options is not the problem. It is, in fact, the solution to a whole host of other problems that for centuries led to all manner of misery and untimely deaths for more women than we can ever know.
Instead of posting this myopic and misogynistic blog, you could have written about how to solve the real causes of poverty among single mothers: mandating a living wage, closing the gender wage gap, mandating paid sick leave, better subsidizing child care, making college affordable, and shattering the glass ceilings that still keep women out of the private and public institutions that make such rules. Shame on you. You owe women like Diana an apology.
Sharon Kayne is the communications director for New Mexico Voices for Children.