In a forthcoming book, Doing the Best I Can: Fatherhood in the Inner City, Timothy Nelson and Edin, the Harvard sociologist, describe in great detail the kind of role reversal that has occurred among low-income families, both black and white. What they saw were mothers who were financially responsible for children, and fathers who were trying to maintain ties to their children in other ways, limited by the fact that these fathers have very little money, are often involved in drugs, crime, or other relationships, and rarely live with the mother and child. In other words, low-income fathers are not only withdrawing from the traditional breadwinner role, they’re staging a wholesale retreat—even as they make attempts to remain involved in their children’s lives.Share
Normative changes figure as well. As the retreat from marriage has become more common, it’s also become more acceptable. That acceptance came earlier among blacks than among whites because of their own distinct experiences. Now that unwed childbearing is becoming the norm among the white working class as well, there is no longer much of a stigma associated with single parenting, and there is a greater willingness on the part of the broader community to accept the legitimacy of single-parent households.
Despite this change in norms, however, most Americans, whatever their race or social class, still aspire to marriage. It’s just that their aspirations are typically unrealistically high and their ability to achieve that ideal is out of step with their opportunities and lifestyle. As scholars such as Cherlin and Edin have emphasized, marriage is no longer a precursor to adult success. Instead, when it still takes place, marriage is more a badge of success already achieved. In particular, large numbers of young adults are having unplanned pregnancies long before they can cope with the responsibilities of parenthood. Paradoxically, although they view marriage as something they cannot afford, they rarely worry about the cost of raising a child. (Read entire article.)