Social science vs. Katie Roiphe’s selfishness

In the run-up to the financial collapse, people over-leveraged themselves to acquire more and more homes in order to cash in on ‘flipping’ them, never realizing that the housing bubble might pop and that they would be stuck with multiple properties they could not afford.  Other people overreached in the purchase of their primary homes by acquiring loans that in the long term would crush them.

When all this came to a head, the economy collapsed. We’re still untangling ourselves from the mess of debt and liability that resulted. A renewed societal stigma against highly-leveraged purchases and towards paying down debt and increasing personal savings seems to be an obvious and healthy corrective, right?

Or maybe not.

What if we instead celebrated different types of financial situations, from an open-mindedness about being underwater on your home mortgage to the warm messiness of a bankruptcy caused by buying a second home through an interest-only loan. That may sound ridiculous, but it mirrors Katie Roiphe’s logic to how society should view family structure. Roiphe’s latest NY Times piece makes the case that her family structure is good because it exists, and um…

I happen to have two children with two different fathers, neither of whom I live with, and both of whom we are close to. I am lucky enough to be living in financially stable, relatively privileged circumstances, and to have had the education that allows me to do so. I am not the “typical” single mother, but then there is no typical single mother any more than there is a typical mother. It is, in fact, our fantasies and crude stereotypes of this “typical single mother” that get in the way of a more rational, open-minded understanding of the variety and richness of different kinds of families.

Lucky, indeed. In Charles Murray’s recent “Coming Apart”, he defines marriage as “the fault line dividing American classes”. Basically, successful people get and stay married, and poor people don’t. Roiphe is indeed atypical, her financial stability an outlier compared to the vast majority of single mothers, and the actual “fantasy” that public policy should not be based off of. After all, mountains of studies have shown the negative impacts to children brought up in these “different kinds of families.” So what does Roiphe have to say about these studies?

To support the basic notion that single mothers are irresponsible and dangerous to the general order of things, people often refer vaguely to “studies.” I am not a huge believer in studies because they tend to collapse the complexities and nuance of actual lived experience and because people lie to themselves and others.

In a similar self-serving manner, during my college years I wasn’t a “huge believer” in the dangers of binge drinking. But it never occurred to me to argue that my personal experience of being more fun in social situations, with no side effects other than moderate hangovers, means we should stop negatively stereotyping alcoholics. Roiphe, on the other hand, would like to redefine family on less stable terms in order to protect her own self-regard. She suggests that we throw out social science as a discipline because she is offended by the truths it reveals, which impugn her lifestyle choice.

Studies like those done by the Princeton sociologist Sara S. McLanahan… show that conditions like poverty and instability, which frequently accompany single-mother households, increase the chances that the children involved will experience alcoholism, mental illness, academic failure and other troubles. But there is no conclusive evidence that, absent those conditions, the pure, pared-down state of single motherhood is itself dangerous to children.”

And there’s no conclusive evidence that, absent her husband’s assassination, Mrs. Lincoln wouldn’t have enjoyed her night out at the play.

PROFESSOR McLANAHAN’S studies… also offer evidence that, to a lesser extent, particular romantic patterns of the mother — namely introducing lots of boyfriends into children’s lives — contribute to the risk. What the studies don’t show is that longing for a married father at the breakfast table injures children.

Likewise, other studies show that smoking can cause cancer, but those studies don’t know how it feels to really crave a cigarette.

After a long tirade that should be titled, “exceptions that prove the rule”, Roiphe comes to her big finish:

All of the liberal concern about single motherhood might more usefully be channeled into protecting single mothers, rather than the elaborate clucking and exquisite condescension that get us nowhere. Attention should be paid to the serious underlying economic inequities, without the colorful surface distraction of concerned or judgmental prurience. Let’s abandon the fundamentally frothy question of who is wearing a ring. Young men need jobs so they can pay child support and contribute more meaningfully to the households they are living in. The real menace to America’s children is not single mothers, or unmarried or gay parents, but an economy that stokes an unconscionable divide between the rich and the not rich.

Forget fear itself, the only thing we have to fear are nefarious “studies”, frothy questions, and this stoking economy!

Joking aside, Roiphe’s pose is the height of selfishness. The distortions of logic throughout her column are nothing but an attempt to relieve herself of the stigma that is associated with her circumstance. The “unconscionable” economic divide she laments is interwoven with the breakdown of the family she wishes to celebrate.

Her proposed solution of subsidizing the bottom half of that divide will only bring more of it. We must treat single mothers with love, compassion, and charity, but we fail to provide all three when we teach the next generation a lesson of moral relativity about the choices available to them.

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