In-Depth: The full interview with Isabel Sawhill

Economist Isabel Sawhill in her office at the Brookings Institution

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Economist Isabel Sawhill in her office at the Brookings Institution

Isabel Sawhill is an economist, a former Clinton administration budget official and a public-minded scholar with a long interest in poverty, inequality and the welfare of children and families. She is a senior fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. and the author of “Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage.” When senior reporter Naomi Schalit began her nine months of research for our series on Maine’s single parents in poverty, one of her first stops was Sawhill’s office at Brookings. You’ll find many quotes from Sawhill in Schalit’s five-part series; we provide readers with the interview transcript, below.

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Schalit: Why is this happening?

Sawhill: “This” being the breakdown of the family? I think there are multiple reasons. If I had to list them, I would put near the top of the list changing opportunities for women. Along with that, changing social norms. I think they’ve interacted with each other, I think they’ve fed on each other. Neither one by themselves is sufficient explanation. But you had to have some fundamental underlying change to drive the norms, and I think that was the changing status of women.

There is a lot of emphasis in the literature on declining economic prospects for men, especially less educated men, and I think that’s played some role. From my research, it’s not as important as what I just mentioned. I’m not saying it’s not important, I’m just saying I don’t think this would have happened if that had been all that was going on. If that had been all that was going on, there might have even been more marriage, because marriage is a way to cope with economic difficulty. People have always doubled up in hard times. The extended family kind of went away when we had good times, not bad times.

Schalit: It’s hard times now, and it’s hard times for these women and these families. So why aren’t they reverting to marriage?

Sawhill: That’s the harder question to answer, but I think it’s to some extent the social norms and the fact that women can, because of their own ability to support themselves and their children if they have to, they’ve gotten fussier. They’ve raised the bar on who they’re willing to marry, and not enough men have adjusted to what women expect. Having another paycheck coming to the household is great, but not if it comes along with domestic violence or infidelity or alcoholism or whatever.

Schalit: Why should people in Maine care about this issue?

Sawhill: Because it affects the well-being of children and their life trajectories. And because it leads to more poverty, more inequality and less social mobility.

Schalit: Twenty five years from now, will it grow? Will we have more and more poverty, more and more social inequality if something isn’t done to interrupt this trend?

Sawhill: There are a couple of hopeful signs and some less hopeful ones.

On the hopeful side, I think that once women gain greater control over their own fertility, there will be less of this. If you’ve looked at my book, you know that the data just shout out at me: 40 percent of all babies in America are born outside of marriage. For women under 30, it’s 50 percent. And the important thing to know about that is that 60 percent of those births to young unmarried women are unplanned, unintended. And amongst the less educated and less well off, it’s much higher than that. So if people were only having children when they really felt themselves that they were ready to have them and wanted to have them and had a partner that they wanted to have them with, that would make a huge difference. And I think that that will come. In fact, even since I first started working on my book, there’s been a kind of revolution in the contraceptive area. More and more young women are now aware of and beginning to use longer acting forms of contraception, which are far more effective.

So that’s one thing. Now, the other thing — and I’m not sure, this is a little speculative — but I am running into more and more what I call single moms by choice. These are typically somewhat older women, sometimes quite well educated, have secure jobs and careers and they haven’t met anybody that they really want to partner with and they decide to have a baby on their own. I ran into someone this weekend that I know that’s made that choice. She’s not going to have a problem, she’s a professional and she’s in her thirties. And so I think it’s really important to distinguish “single mothers by choice” and “single-mothers-because-something-happened…” This is an important group, but it’s a small one.

I think when you talk about the future, so many things can happen here. I think it’s kind of backward looking to say “Well marriage is the only solution here.” It’s not. But the current situation is definitely not a good one in my view. I’m not going to put lipstick on a pig.

Schalit: Do you think that policymakers and politicians are sufficiently interested in this issue? Are you seeing it being dealt with anywhere in a way that demonstrates an understanding that this is a problem and we’ve got to do something about it?

Sawhill: I’m not seeing very much political courage: I’m seeing very little, in fact. On the left you have people who understand the issue and would like to do something about it but are fearful of talking about it in our culture and current political environment. And you even have some people on the right who are in the same boat, but it’s considered politically toxic.

Schalit: Why is that?

Sawhill: Partly because it gets conflated with abortion, which is very controversial in this country. Partly because it’s about sex, and people are uncomfortable about sex. We’re still a somewhat puritanical country and a religious country.

Schalit: Do you think that at least on the left there’s a concern about what was said when Moynihan had done his study, which was “blaming the victim?”

Sawhill: Definitely, definitely. There is definitely a fear of blaming the victim. In fact, as single parents grow in number, it will become more difficult to talk about this issue because, if you’re a politician you want them on your side, and especially if you’re a politician on the left, you want them on your side, you need them on your side.

And, of course, we all say, all of us out there talking about this, that we’re basing everything we say on what the research shows about the consequences in general, on average, and that there are plenty of single parents out there doing a heroic job. And I really believe that. I don’t think this is about blaming individual women.

We should make a distinction between the people who are single moms right now, and are struggling with what that means, versus what do we want to see in the future? Do we want to see this trend line keep going up? My answer is no. As an economist, I don’t know of any economy that I can envision right now where it’s going to be feasible to be part of the middle class and have two or three kids and not have a second (adult) member to both help with earning a living and taking care of the kids. I just think that’s a tough row to hoe.

Schalit: Is poverty causing these children’s problems, or being raised by single mothers causing these children’s problems? Can you separate them?

Sawhill: It’s both in my view, what I say in my book and in talks that I give is that you can’t sort out the chicken and egg problem. Chickens cause eggs and eggs cause chickens. The research is not up to being able to sort these two out and say “It’s one-third this and two-thirds that.” We just don’t know, but it’s very clear to me nevertheless that single parents have very high poverty rates. They’re four or five times as likely to be poor as two-parent families, so it’s definitely a consequence.

And then, when the people who say it’s a cause, here’s the logical problem for me. If you say it’s a cause, I mean I get the idea if you don’t have much hope in your life, if you don’t see a positive trajectory for yourself and you think you’re just going to be poor forever, what’s the point in deferring childbearing. And what’s the point in marrying a guy who has a very poor economic prospects himself. I get all of that, but it’s still puzzling, why it is that if you’re poor, you wouldn’t want a second earner in the household even more than someone who isn’t poor. It is not a strictly speaking, in my view anyway, a pure economic issue. It is an issue of having enough hope and optimism about the future to make it worth deferring childbearing, doing a little planning, not having casual sex with just anybody, planning your parenthood enough because you have a bright future in mind for your kids as well. So you want to be careful about the circumstances into which you bring them.

Schalit: It is one of the really puzzling parts to me why a single mother with one child would then have a second.

Sawhill: I really have to emphasize as much as I can that these are not decisions that people make. People have sex because sex is very gratifying and is a road to intimacy and getting beyond loneliness. Sex leads to pregnancy and pregnancy leads to children, especially if you are, for religious or moral reasons, opposed to abortion or can’t access one easily or it’s too expensive. By the way, don’t forget that abortion is getting more difficult to access and is very expensive. It’s not covered by government programs. In some states it is, but there’s no federal funding under Medicaid, for example, for abortion.

We forgot that early marriage no longer occurs. When I was young, people were getting married right out of college and not right out of high school. Now the average age of marriage is 27 and 29 and so that leaves this decade or more of when you’re probably sexually active and at risk.

Schalit: What should Maine be doing about this problem?

Sawhill: Promoting long-acting reversible contraception, first and foremost. And that means retraining providers, it means making women of reproductive age aware of their choices, it means making them aware of the fact that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics both say this should be the first line of defense for any woman who doesn’t want to get pregnant, including a woman who’s never had a baby or a woman who’s a teenager. People don’t know that, even the health providers don’t know that, the less sophisticated ones or the older ones, particularly.

And then I think the Affordable Care Act provision says that any woman should be able to get any form of FDA-approved contraception with no copay is important. And of course, that’s going through the courts now, including the Supreme Court right now because of the religious objections. But that’s related to the political toxicity. [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted in April 2016. In May, the Supreme Court said a compromise had been reached by religious groups and the federal government that preserved the right of women to get free contraception under the Affordable Care Act.]

Schalit: What about welfare?

Sawhill: People ask me a lot, “Does welfare lead to single parenting, unwed childbearing?” There’s a mixed research base on that, but I don’t know of any good study that’s shown it had a big effect. I would say it’s, if anything, a minor effect.

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