Motherhood without marriage broadens income gaps and creates mobility barriers.
Jessica Schairer, an assistant director of a child care center and a single mother of three, offers pretzels to her son, Steavon, 10, at her job, in Michigan, May 18, 2012. Striking changes in family structure have broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility.
ANN ARBOR, MICH. - Jessica Schairer has so much in common with her boss, Chris Faulkner, that a visitor to the day care center they run might get them confused. They are both friendly women from modest Midwestern backgrounds who left for college with conventional hopes of marriage, motherhood and career. They both have children in elementary school. While Faulkner, as the boss, earns more money, the difference is a gap, not a chasm.
But a friendship that evokes parity by day becomes a study of inequality at night and a testament to the way family structure deepens class divides. Faulkner is married and living on two paychecks, while Schairer is raising her three children by herself. That gives the Faulkners an advantage in income and nurturing time, and makes their children statistically more likely to finish college, find good jobs and form stable marriages.
Faulkner goes home to a subdivision and weekends crowded with children's events. Schairer's rent consumes more than half her income, and she scrapes by on food stamps.
"I see Chris' kids -- they're in swimming and karate and baseball and Boy Scouts," Schairer said. "That's something I wish I could do for my kids. But number one, that stuff costs a lot of money and, two, I just don't have the time."
The economic storms of recent years have raised concerns about growing inequality and questions about a core national faith, that even Americans of humble backgrounds have a good chance of getting ahead. But striking changes in family structure have also broadened income gaps and posed new barriers to upward mobility.
College-educated Americans like the Faulkners are increasingly likely to marry one another, compounding their growing advantages in pay. Less-educated women like Schairer, who left college without a degree, are growing less likely to marry, raising children on pinched paychecks.
Estimates vary, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns -- as opposed to changes in individual earnings -- may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. "It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged," said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.
About 41 percent of U.S. births occur outside marriage, up from 17 percent three decades ago. But equally sharp are the educational divides, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a research group. Fewer than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less, the figure is nearly 60 percent.
Motherhood outside marriage is now growing fastest in the lower reaches of the white middle class -- among women like Schairer who have some postsecondary schooling but no four-year degree. Inequality is a word she rarely uses, though her life shows its broadening reach. "Two incomes would certainly help with the bills," she said. "But it's parenting, too. I wish I could say, 'Call your dad.'"