Unequal Government Benefits for Single Mothers

Recently, the question of unequal government benefits for single mothers came up in Singapore. There were at once voices on both sides speaking up, but it seemed fairly clear that there was a lot of talking past each other going on. To remedy this, here’s one schema to help make sense of how different arguments relate to each other.

Part I: A Broad Blueprint

When dealing with government policy, it’s always useful to use an ends-means analysis. The “ends” portion is where we examine the goals of a particular policy: whether it is desirable, whether it is the right kind of goal for government policy, etc. The “means” portion is to consider whether the ways in which the government is proposing to attain these goals is acceptable. The kinds of criticisms that can then be levied include checking whether:

  1. The goal is worth pursuing.
  2. The means accomplish the goal.
  3. The means are unacceptable because they violate certain individual rights.
  4. The means are tailored narrowly enough.
  5. The means might have unintended consequences.
  6. The means undermine other worthy goals.

One feature of a lot of critiques of denying single mothers benefits seems to be conflating a lot of the above aspects, which are at least conceptually distinct. In Parts II and III, I briefly consider separately the ends and means aspects.

Part II: Is there a Worthy End Here?

It should, at the onset, be admitted that a a lot of negative emotions regarding single mothers might originate in people believing that single parents are immoral in some way. However since purely religious reasons (which cannot be translated into secular ones), as well as moralizing from emotion (i.e., without articulable reasons) have no place in public policy making, a lot of these can be straight-forwardly rejected. As for secular justification, we encounter one in almost every argument: the welfare of children. Let us examine the evidence.

There seems to be good sociological evidence that children from single-parent homes tend to do worse on a variety of measures. As social scientist Bradford Wilcox points out:

Twenty-five percent of youths from divorced families in comparison to 10 percent from non-divorced families did have serious social, emotional, or psychological problems…[It was] found that boys raised in a single-parent household were more than twice as likely to be incarcerated, compared with boys raised in an intact, married home, even after controlling for differences in parental income, education, race, and ethnicity…[Another study] found that about one-third of girls whose fathers left the home before they turned 6 ended up pregnant as teenagers, compared with just 5 percent of girls whose fathers were there throughout their childhood. This dramatic divide was narrowed a bit when Ellis controlled for parents’ socioeconomic background—but only by a few percentage points.

And so, if the proportion of children who are raised in two parent households could be increased (while the total number remains unchanged), we might have more children who flourish with respect to their social, economic and psychological selves. This does seem potentially like a worthwhile end to pursue.

One might object that at least some of the negative effects for these children originate in the state’s treatment of single-parent families (eg: denying benefits). However, as Wilcox points out, the disadvantages of single parent upbringing seems to exist even if the family isn’t poor. Hence, it doesn’t look as though usual government benefits are enough to bridge the gap.

The most common progressive response to this barrage of statistics seems to be some variation of “all these numbers are confusing me, so I’m going to ignore them.”

Pamela Gwyn Kripke at Slate says:

Kids of unmarried parents, according to all of those studies (of rich moms and poor, educated moms and not-so), are supposed to be failures. They are supposed to abuse drugs, get pregnant, and end up in prison rather than grad school. One-fourth of them are supposed to experience the kind of emotional havoc that renders them useless forever. There is of course no data suggesting that these particular kids might have had similar paths regardless of the number of adults sleeping down the hall. But beyond that there is also the beauty that emerges from the strain, the impediments, even the sometimes terrifying knowledge that their parents might fail them.

Not only is that a ridiculous reading of the data, she seems to be suggesting that there is some sort of beauty in struggle that we should recognize as salient for this debate. Well then, I finally have a great excuse for not giving to charity- can’t be depriving all those poor people of their struggle-induced beauty.

NYU journalism professor Katie Roiphe is at least self-aware of what she’s doing:

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.

It sounds reasonable at first, except the numbers are representing certain measurable aspects of people’s lives, and these are clearly revealing to us that coming from a single-parent household increases the risk of a variety of problems. Personal anecdotes do not disprove these data. Of course, there might be aspects of lives that these stats do not capture, but unless the claim is that these unquantifiable aspects offset the already quantified aspects, this tells us little of worth

(Yet, you always have that one kid who feels the need to get up and go “I’m from a single-parent household. Tell me why my family is inferior.” I would like to go on record supporting a policy whereby anyone who asks this question immediately gets carted off by the police, and is then forced to attend a crash course on statistics. There are legitimate questions about why single-parent households seem to be doing worse on some measures, but personalizing the issue in this way obscures these)

A common variation of the above argument is as follows:

It’s useful and humbling to remember that no family structure guarantees happiness or ensures misery: real life is wilier and more fraught with accident and luck than that…Suffering is everywhere, and married parents, even happily married parents, raise screwed-up or alcoholic or lost children, just as single parents raise strong, healthy ones. What matters most, it should go without saying, is the kind of parent you are, not whom you sleep with, and even that matters only up to a point.

Well then, we know there are cigarette smokers who don’t get cancer, and some cancer patients who don’t smoke. Well Ta-Da! Apparently cigarettes aren’t related to cancer anymore.

Of course no family structure can guarantee happiness, but we have data to show that certain family structures seem to tilt the odds in a non-trivial way. Instead of over-sentimental rambling about families, the actual statistics need to be engaged with. Unless new evidence emerges that children raised in single-parent households do just as well as those in double-parent households, we are going to have to admit that promoting the proportion of double-parent households is possibly a worthy goal for the government to pursue.

It should again be emphasized that all of this is considering the ends independent of means. To get on-board what’s been said until now, consider this thought experiment: you have to pull a lever to choose between two configurations of society, where one has a lower proportion of single-parent households than the other. If we know nothing else, and are forced to make a decision, it seems clear that we will need to choose the one with more double-parent households. This shows that seeking to make that sort of society is possibly an end the government should seek.

Now on to the means!

Part III: The Means, The Means!

Since I’ve argued that the government might have a legitimate goal, we now have to check if the means by which these are pursued are acceptable. This is where progressive criticism of policies regarding unequal treatment gains traction.

I reproduce (a modified version of) the list from part I here, as a guide for categorizing the types of criticisms, and then list out some major criticisms that have been brought up recently.

  1. The means do not accomplish the goal.
  2. The means are unacceptable because they violate certain individual rights.
  3. The means are not tailored narrowly enough.
  4. The means might have unintended consequences.
  5. The means infringe on other worthy goals.

A. Many single parent households are not created by choices at all, but rather by death and abandonment of the other parent (in which cases, penalizing the single-parent doesn’t do anything). This is an obvious case of #1, but notice that it can also be seen as a an example of #3. If the government policy made sure to exclude these kinds of families from it’s policy, then it appears as though this might go away.

A related argument claims that the vast majority of single parent-households do not come into being by any choice, and so legislating against them would not create any substantial change. However, for this to work, we would need to produce actual statistics regarding the causes of single-parent household formation.

B. The most frequent criticism is essentially bewilderment about how government policy can influence people’s choices in this matter. After all, no one goes “oh, the government policies penalize single parents? I should probably reconsider this separation then.” This seems to be a case of #1

Although this has some initial plausibility, we should be wary of dismissing the role government policy and norms play. We need to recognize that government norms play a major role in how people see themselves, others, their choices, their possibilities, etc., (Think about the case for repeal of 377A, even though it’s not implemented). Hence government policy might very well affect people’s choices, although the exact mechanism will be hard to spell out. Empirical data from other countries that altered their policy towards single-parents might be useful here.

C. Don’t policies against single moms harm their children? Shouldn’t we be supporting these kids instead of punishing their families?

This certainly has force, but we have to remember that the end in question concerns the well-being of (future) children too. Since the welfare of present children certainly seems to be another end the government should seek, it seems as though we now have ends in conflict (#5). Hence, it seems as though we might be forced to act against the interest of some group of children somewhere along the line.

D. What if the government succeeds in promoting people being together, but this also results in people being afraid to leave abusive/ cheating partners? This seems to be a hybrid of #3, #4, and #5 (since protecting victims is another worthy end).

This again might be managed by creating exceptions for abuse victims (assuming false accusations are not a major concern).

E. It might be unfair to target people on the basis of statistical probability. For instance, assume we have a community of people where 90% of them are known to be criminals. It still would be unfair to randomly arrest a person of the community, unless there’s evidence that links that particular person to a crime. Just statistical probability is insufficient (think of the case against racial profiling, for instance). Similarly, even if single-parent households have a slightly higher incidence of harm to children, it is unfair to treat all single parent households differently.

Although this approach is somewhat successful, there are at least two responses to it. First, single-parent homes aren’t being punished per se, but merely being used to disincentivize present and future families (Is this relevant distinction or word games? Unclear). Second, statistical reasons are all we can provide when dealing with hypothetical people and scenarios. Either we legislate based on this kind of evidence, or not at all.

Although neither is a knockdown response, they do complicate the picture.

F. Miscellaneous Criticism

“Why doesn’t the government do policy X for children instead?”

“We have to accept the world as the messy place that it is- single moms and all. Don’t try to fit people in your little boxes.”

“I know this single-parent family and I really feel they should not be treated differently”

Although these kinds of responses are fairly common, they tend to be restatements of the objections above, or red herrings that have little relevance to the actual issue. Let us resist these and instead engage with the actual issues.


The purpose of this post wasn’t to argue for any particular position on the issue of benefits for single parents, as much as to try to spell out what the central issues are, and well as identify some of the major fault lines of the debate. It’s fine that people have strong views (which can, in principle, range from supporting the increase of the burden on single mothers to giving extra benefits to them), but we want to ensure that we know what we’re committing to when we take a particular stance.

Are you sure you know how we should compare the welfare of present and hypothetical future children (especially, considering we have no idea how many of them will exist, or how they will be affected)? How do we make reasonable predictions about the efficacy of norms? How do we weigh myopic sympathy against disinterested reason (all the while shielding from apathy)? How do we know if the ends justify the means?

These are not easy questions, and so it is paramount that debate is allowed to continue without the self-righteous branding of opponents as stupid or evil. It’s not enough to have landed on the right conclusion (if that’s what’s actually happened), it’s important how we get there too.


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