Last week Mike Huckabee’s presidential ramp-up took a Quaylian detour when he denounced Oscar winner Natalie Portman for her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Suggesting that Portman and other unmarried Hollywood stars glamorize single motherhood, he claimed, “Most single moms are very poor, uneducated, can't get a job, and if it weren't for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death and never have health care.”
This is the kind of story I would typically ignore, but I agreed to talk with Lawrence O’Donnell about it on Friday night because Huckabee’s recycled and inaccurate attack on single motherhood was personally irritating to me.
I know a bit about single parenting. Although my father was always a part of my life, my parents were not married and my mother was the primary caretaker and breadwinner. She managed this as a white woman raising an interracial child in the South in the 1970s. She rarely made a wage equal to her male counterparts and often had to navigate a difficult racial environment. It was not an easy task socially, financially, or emotionally. It was certainly not glamorous. I am sure my mom would have liked much more personal and financial support. My mother worked extremely hard, was always present, and never left my sister or me feeling deprived. I didn’t even know how economically marginal we truly were until I got to college and saw what wealth looked like for the first time.
My mom’s experiences were tough enough to convince me that I never wanted to be a single parent. So I followed all the rules: I dated a man for five years, got a PhD, then got married, then bought a house, then had a baby. I assumed all my “good choices” had protected me from the fate of single parenting. But my first husband left me before our daughter was two and I suddenly found myself shouldering all the financial and personal burdens of parenting. Although my education and income meant I never descended into poverty, the costs of single parenting were real. Despite our tough experiences I know that both my mother and I are good, loving parents and that neither of us, nor most other unmarried mothers, deserve to be scapegoats for social or fiscal problems facing America.
In fact, my lived experiences of single parenting are more representative of the unmarried mom experience than Huckabee’s fantasy of starving children fed by the state. Data from a 2009 report on unmarried parents show that 80% of custodial single mothers are gainfully employed and fewer than 10% are recipients of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). Poverty rates are certainly much higher among single parents. Nearly 27% live below the poverty line. But this number does not approach the “most” which Huckabee claims. These data show that although they are more often poor, most single mothers work despite the obvious difficulties of working while raising children without a spouse. They further show that our government actually does very little to support these women. These moms are hardly cash-sucking drains on national or state economies. Many of these women and their children could use more support, not less.
Maybe what Huckabee meant to designate was not single mothers, but teen mothers. Teen mothers do face far more difficult economic circumstances than do unmarried mothers more generally. Only about 50% of teens who become pregnant before graduating will ever finish high school. The children of teens have poorer health outcomes, which can have real and lasting social costs. But if Huckabee is concerned with glamorizing teen pregnancy he need look no farther than his own political party. The GOP's embrace of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy during the 2008 convention was a powerful endorsement by America’s “family values” Party for precisely the kind of pregnancy that often has the most difficult social outcomes for moms and kids: the pregnancy of an unmarried teen without a diploma.
Further, if Huckabee is concerned with decreasing the number of unmarried moms then I hope he plans to aggressively lobby the U.S. Senate to turn back the House's attack on Planned Parenthood. The accurate, available, affordable and safe family planning counseling and contraceptive services of Planned Parenthood are the first line of defense against unintended pregnancies and are critically important to empowering women and all ages to make the healthiest reproductive choices they can. The GOPs efforts to defund Title X and to prosecute a war against choice will undoubtedly lead to more, not fewer, households led by single women with few economic resources. In my recent column I argued, that maybe that is precisely the outcome the GOP prefers.