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Last June, Fox & Friends aired a funny segment in which the hosts took seriously a fake social media campaign, supposedly led by feminists, to get rid of Father’s Day. Susan Patton, author of Marry Smart (2014), saw a sinister plot: “They’re not just interested in ending Father’s Day; they’re interested in ending men.”
Host Tucker Carlson added, “There’s a reason there are more women living in poverty now than at any time in my lifetime—it’s because there are fewer married women. I mean, when you crush men, you hurt women.”
Carlson makes two assumptions, which are common in conservative opinion. First, he supposes that the historical rise of single mothers is the result of feminists harming men. Demographers who have studied the decline in marriage rates do believe it is related to the falling economic fortunes of men, especially relative to women, but it is not clear how much responsibility for that decline belongs to women, much less feminists. Feminists have worked hard to gain women a fair shot in schools and the workplace, but men’s losses are in large part a function of technological change and structural features of a globalized economy.
Second, Carlson assumes there are more women in poverty now because of single motherhood. Senator Marco Rubio regularly makes the same point. But is it right?
It is true that the proportion of children born to women who aren’t married has doubled in the past three decades, but that doesn’t tell the whole story about poverty. Because women’s employment opportunities improved during that time, while fertility rates fell, the women’s poverty rate is lower now than during peaks in the 1980s and 1990s.
And while women’s poverty has risen since its low point in 2001, the recent increase has affected both single and married women. In fact, proportionally the increase since that year is twice as great for married women.
It is also not the case that women comprise a larger portion of poor people than in the recent past. In 1978, when the sociologist Diana Pearce wrote her influential article “The Feminization of Poverty,” the proportion of poor adults that were women approached two-thirds. However, since then—as women’s earnings increased and wages fell for many men—that proportion has fallen to 58 percent. This doesn’t mean that there are fewer women in poverty today, but it does speak to the economic rationality underlying the trend away from marriage. Women’s increasing independence and men’s increasing insecurity don’t bode well for the traditional institution of marriage.
These statistics do not provide a comprehensive portrait of poor American women. But they do indicate that women’s poverty is not, on the whole, a function of failure to marry. That is a politically convenient simplification.
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