Do we really need a front-page story in the Sunday New York Times to tell us that a woman with a college degree and a good solid marriage is better off than a college dropout raising three kids alone? In “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do’,” Jason DeParle profiled Jessica Schairer and Chris Faulkner, two white women from conventional church-going Midwestern middle-class families whose life trajectory looked much the same when they graduated high school and set out for college. Jessica, though, got pregnant by her freshman-year boyfriend and was persuaded by him to drop out and start a family. Now she’s raising their children in Ann Arbor, Michigan, by herself, on one income (just under $25,000 for a full time job as assistant director of a daycare center) and food stamps.
Meanwhile, Chris, her boss at the daycare center, did everything “by the book” and in the right order: college, marriage, kids. Now Chris has a combined household income of $95,000 a year, with plenty of money to spend on her sons’ sports and extracurricular activities, to say nothing of a loving, involved dad to share the parenting, while Jessica is exhausted, lonely, and can barely afford generic breakfast cereal, let alone Boy Scout Camp for her troubled son. Yes, yes, is the takeaway: inequality is increasing and good jobs are hard to find, but “what most separates” the two women “is not the impact of globalization on their wages but a 6-foot-8-inch man named Kevin.”
Well, if only we could clone Kevin—or maybe put great big Good Guy and Bad Guy signs on young men so that naïve college girls could tell which slacker boys are exploitive louts and which ones just need a nudge to become prime husband material. (Kevin went through a layabout stage but reformed because he wanted to marry Chris. “Marriage, in other words, can help make men marriageable.”) DeParle seems to think getting married transforms people, and maybe sometimes it does—but the lightbulb has to want to change. If marriage turned men into Kevins, there wouldn’t be so much divorce. Let’s say Jessica had gotten her boyfriend to marry her as they originally discussed—and she stayed with him for seven years and three kids, so she clearly tried to make it happen (“I wanted him to love me,” she says—what a world of sadness in those words!)—he would still have been a nogoodnik who rarely worked, lived off Jessica and his mother, and had little to do with the kids even when they all lived together. She would be long divorced by now. Her only other serious boyfriend, whom she dated for a year before letting him move in to her kids’ great delight, had to be removed after six months by the police. I don’t mean to be discouraging here, but maybe there was never going to be a Kevin for Jessica. Maybe there aren’t enough Kevins to go around, because of a whole range of developments over several decades, from the decline of good union jobs to our penchant for putting staggering numbers of men in prison.
DeParle mentions positively Charles Murray’s contention that single motherhood is a “values” issue, not an economic one. Murray means working-class and lower-middle-class white people have abandoned traditional family values (they’re becoming like—oh no!—black people) but you can just as well see Jessica as having too many of those values: she rejected abortion, she stuck by her man, she tried too hard to make a family. If we really want women like Jessica to avoid early childbearing and single motherhood, we have to stop promoting outmoded ideas about sex and gender: abstinence-only sex ed, shame that leads to inconsistent use of birth control, stigmatizing abortion, woman’s worth depending on keeping a man, “fixing” the relationship as woman’s responsibility, motherhood as women’s primary purpose in life. “I’m in this position because of decisions I made,” Jessica says. That’s a very American value right there: if you screw up in your early 20s, you—and your children—are on your own for life.
What would we do if we wanted to help Jessica and her kids, the millions like them, and the millions at risk of becoming them? I was struck by how completely she was thrown back on her own resources: she went to William Penn University, which costs $20,000 a year and has a freshman retention rate of only 55 percent—maybe she and her boyfriend fell through cracks that shouldn’t have been there. She gets no child support, not even a token amount—which is really outrageous, because even if her kids’ father makes very little, I’ll bet he has beer and cigarettes and girlfriends. She has church, but seemingly no help from her parents, and no helpful network of friends.
Her son has Asperger’s—where are the programs for him? Kids’ extracurriculars and camps cost too much for her, although we know they help learning and development—why aren’t they free? If she leaves her too-expensive neighborhood, her kids will be in a worse school—why? Believe it or not, most Western industrialized countries do a far better job than we do of giving kids a decent childhood and of sustaining their mother too. It does not have to be that if you can’t afford to live in the right neighborhood, your children get a bad education. That is a social and political decision that we have made.
And then there is Jessica’s job. Although she earned a degree from community college and is a highly regarded employee, she is still on an hourly wage of only $12.35. She punches in and out, and she gets no paid days off—even when she was recovering from an operation for cervical cancer. When she took a day off to chaperon a school field day, she lost a day’s pay. Message to Anne-Marie Slaughter: this is how we treat “family balance” in the regular world of work, and this is how we treat skilled, experienced management-level employees in the childcare field. Taking care of children is women’s work, after all, and women are supposed to have Kevins, not family-size paychecks. Why does it seem like a reasonable policy suggestion to tell Jessica she needs a husband, and pie in the sky to say she needs a union? Or a national day care system like the one in France, where teachers are well-paid, with benefits?
Jessica Schairer is doing the best she can. In fact, she is pretty heroic. It’s the rest of us that are falling short.