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Reading Research on the Family

1024px-Stephanie_Coontz_(5105167078)A few years ago, my sister forwarded me a link to an op-ed in the New York Times written by a guest columnist who we both counted as one of our favorite academics to read when we were in college. Stephanie Coontz, a foremost expert on the contemporary American family as a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, had written this particular column about taking popular research with a grain of salt. Though by no means her most important work to date, the message behind this piece has stayed with me for some time.  It reminded me that averages, as interpreted through published research, are useful. They help us in community planning, as well as giving us the peace of mind that we are within the realm of “normal.” But, sometimes, numbers are, in fact, misleading…especially when interpreted to push for reactionary reform and legislation. She gave this example following the horrific rape of a young girl in Steubenville, Ohio: in 2011, the average income for the residents of Steubenville was $46,341. But if Oprah Winfrey and Warren Buffett moved to town, that average household income would rise 62%. So we should always read more than one source and check out how other researchers may understand data.

As I mentioned, Coontz’ article has stayed with me for some time. I think back on it often when I read articles that demystify new research, especially those having to do with the family. There is a lot of chatter in our media about the American family – the family in transition, the family in decline, the demise of the American family. But, the fact remains that the institution of the American family is just that: an institution. Perhaps dependent on how you choose to define the American family, for the foreseeable future, it is not going anywhere.

I was reminded of Coontz’ warning about research when I stumbled upon an entry in a Washington Post blog that discusses the “unbelievable”/”breathtaking” rise of single motherhood in America. Quick to analyze this trend within the scope of the African American family, this article resurrects some ancient (and, judging by the name, most likely controversial) paper, which had predicted that the growing number of African American children being raised without fathers would have a difficult time emerging from poverty. There has been a chorus of research that demonstrates how families led by single mothers are more likely to live in poverty, both among divorced mothers and women who were never married to their children’s father. I don’t take issue with this fact. Rather, it is how the article uses the research to present a doom and gloom attitude about the inevitability of poverty for African American children born to single mothers that had me second-guessing.

In order to clear my head, I sought out more literature about single motherhood trend and found a piece called “The Changing Economics of Single Motherhood”. Right off the bat, I felt more at ease. I immediately feel anxious when I see the words “unbelievable” and “breathtaking” next to “rise”. “Change” is a more comfortable term I can get down with.  As I read on, I found that “The Changing Economics of Single Motherhood” was less black and white, literally and figuratively.

The nature of single motherhood is changing. Back in the 1980s, most single-mother families were produced by divorce. Nowadays, with over 40 percent of births occurring outside of marriage, there are many more single-mother families resulting from premarital fertility than failed marriages. But this distinction has been lost on most poverty researchers, who see all single mothers as similar. Scholarship on teenage childbirth also misses the mark—over three-fourths of women who give birth out of wedlock are older than 19, especially nowadays, and a few teenage parents are married.

By the time I got to the end, I saw that both articles discuss the economy of single motherhood, but take very different approaches to get to a similar conclusion: greater educational and career opportunities should be available to women (with/without children) to give them options when deciding to raise children/raising them. This is the key to ending the cycle of poverty for single mothers. My sojourn into family rhetoric took me a roundabout way to get to this same conclusion that I wholeheartedly agree with, and I see again how wise Stephanie Coontz is. There is so much noise that we hear about trends in the family, it is no wonder that we have anxiety about its vitality. Luckily, I have Stephanie Coontz to help me navigate discourse on single motherhood and keep my head on straight. It was, after all, Coontz, in her book The Way We Never Were, who alerted me to the fact that marriages dissolved at about the same rate at the turn of the century as they do now. We are quick to talk about the decline of the two-parent household, but we fail to realize that due to high mortality rates, children 115 years ago experienced the loss of a parent in the home about as much as kids do now. So, with that in mind, I will rest assured that the institution of the American family will forge on.

Written by: Jenny Nigro, M.o.M. Online Intern

Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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