More than once I’ve heard my twenty-something daughters and their female friends laughingly announce their intention to stay single and raise kids on their own. Single motherhood is not that uncommon anymore and jests about the changing trend of single parenting normalize what was once an oddity.
The number of single women having children has risen from 5 percent in 1960 to 35 percent in 2017. While the number of solo dads is also on the rise, they are still a much smaller fraction of the 9 million mothers raising a child without a spouse or partner. Yet we are slow in coming to grips with the idea of how parenthood outside of marriage has shifted the axis on the way we think about the traditional family structure.
There are many studies that indicate that children growing up in two-parent families are more likely to succeed in life, be less insecure and have a healthier perception of the world. And research indicates that one-third of single mothers are living in poverty. Even so, we have a sizeable single parent population and as a society we have to find ways of wrapping our minds around this growing trend.
The TV series Gilmore Girls did much to romanticize the notion of rearing children without much spousal interference or support. Lorelai Gilmore, the mother, played by Lauren Graham, had a daughter when she was 16 and moved away from her parents to rear her child alone in Stars Hollow, a fictional small town in Connecticut. The series did much to project a sanitized version of friend-parenting where the mother-daughter duo watch their favorite movies, have inside jokes, and hardly ever have the blow out fights or deal with the messy complications that entangle mothers and daughters in real life.
Very quickly into the show, it becomes apparent that the Gilmore girls thrive because of the support offered by Stars Hollow denizens like Luke, Sookie, Jackson, Kirk and Miss Patty. Parenting crises in Gilmore Girls are deftly, if frothily, managed with neighborhood participation. The neighborhood of Stars Hollow, with its familiar coffee shop, ballet studio and park, becomes a powerful backdrop, stitching together the lives of the town’s inhabitants in significant ways.
While fictional, the benefits of wider community support is validated by current research.
Using census data, economists Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman found that neighborhoods shape, develop and become predictors of outcomes for children. They note that “children of single parents have higher rates of upward mobility if they grow up in a neighborhood with fewer single parent households.” The study authors infer that this means that the better outcomes are not driven by differences in whether the children are raised by married vs. single parents, but rather by ecological (neighborhood-level) factors, such as higher performing schools, more neighborhood cohesion, lower crime rate and a higher average household income.
While the number of white and Asian single mothers are slowly growing, a majority (82 percent ) of single moms are either black or Hispanic. These racial disparities speak to the inequities that segregated neighborhoods often cannot dispel.
In the city of San Francisco, the Bayview and West Portal areas offer a study in contrasts. In the Bayview, the teenage birthrate was 46 percent, with more than 80 percent of residents being unmarried single parents and over 90 percent being non-white. The average annual household income in 2014-15 for children (now in their 30s) who grew up in this neighborhood was $22,000. In West Portal, however, the teenage birthrate was less than 1 percent; 11 percent of the residents were single parents; 32 percent were non-whites and the average annual household income in 2014-15 for children who grew up in this neighborhood was $53,000.
The report describes some neighborhoods as “opportunity bargains” that can improve the outcome of a child’s future. These bargains are affordable housing opportunities in a high-upward-mobility area. This suggests that The City’s affordable housing policies could be re-examined to produce the best outcomes for children growing up in disadvantaged households.
A few days leading up to Mother’s Day, 60 homeless mothers and children and advocacy groups called on the Board of Supervisors and Mayor London Breed to allocate $14 million toward housing subsidies and other homeless resources. The existing housing subsidies often place single mother families outside The City’s boundaries, adding a layer of hardship with limited access to good schools and neighborhood resources.
As the census report indicates, local governments should evaluate the advantages of higher-outcome neighborhoods like West Portal to inform housing policy agenda, including “providing information and assistance to housing voucher recipients to move to high-opportunity areas,” which is part of a pilot study currently being conducted by Seattle housing authorities.
Government policy cannot lag behind cultural and societal change. Instead of heaping opprobrium on the changing shape of America’s family structure, this is the moment to reckon with how our policies are not meeting the needs of single mothers. Mayor London Breed and the Board of Supervisors must find ways to equalize the potential for the success of single mothers and increase the outcomes for children growing in these families. And the answer lies in building neighborhoods that can connect and support families and help carve the road to future progress.
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. This is an opinion column and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan