So Natalie Portman, fresh from her Oscar triumph, is up the duff. Good for her. Yet to the shock of the American reactionary right, whose ranks grow faster than an infestation of gastro can spread through a day-care centre, the Black Swan is <GASP!> yet-to-be married.
Politician and former Southern Baptist minister, Mike Huckabee, knows a high-profile chance to appeal to the “family values” throng when he sees one. According to the website Mediamatters, Huckabee told a radio host that he is troubled whenever “Natalie Portman or some other Hollywood starlet who boasts …, ‘hey look, you know, we’re having children, we’re not married, but we’re having these children, and they’re doing just fine.’” He reportedly also said “it’s unfortunate that we glorify and glamorize the idea of out of children wedlock.”
Picking on the newly-crowned Queen of the Screen seems to have backfired, though, and Huckabee has backtracked. Not least because Portman intends to enter into blessed union with her choreographer fiancée. “Natalie is an extraordinary actor, very deserving of her recent Oscar and I am glad she will marry her baby’s father,” reads a post on Huckabee’s website. Nope, the real issue seems to be those layabout welfare-dependent single moms, according to the same post: “my comments were about the statistical reality that most single moms are very poor, under-educated, can’t get a job, and if it weren’t for government assistance, their kids would be starving to death. That’s the story that we’re not seeing.”
Mike Huckabee is a shirtsleeves kind of guy. I reckon he’ll appreciate a chance to do something about the scourge of impoverished single momness threatening America. Something more, that is, than selling copies of his new book. Fortunately, several decades of insight from social science and evolutionary biology have given us some very clear ideas about why poor and under-educated women become single mums. (For the benefit of former Arkansas Governor Huckabee and other willing inmates of the US Bible belt, evolutionary biology is a thriving science that helps us understand the living world by testing ideas against evidence and rejecting the ideas that don’t hold up). Happily, It turns out there is plenty that Huckabee and other people of influence can do
First things first: Why do women become single moms? Mostly, it isn’t a choice. Or at least the kind of choice wealthy politicians make, like “Do I cut support for Planned Parenthood, or raise taxes on the richest 1% of citizens”. For many women, the choice is between raising a child alone or not having a family at all; or between leaving an indolent or violent spouse or staying in a situation that is worse than single montherhood.
Science suggests that rather than a lifestyle choice, the number of single mums in a society is a symptom of other things that are happening in that society; like the disparities in wealth between the rich and the poor, and the capacity that women, especially poor and marginalised single women, have to regulate their own reproduction.
The inequality in incomes within a society is a powerful predictor of just about every malady you can imagine, from the incidence of homicide, to obesity, infant mortality and years of adult life lost to disease. Classic research by Martin Daly and the late Margo Wilson in Chicago neighborhoods shows that in those places where incomes are most variable, people, and especially young men, compete and strive for status and respect, desperate to be among the small number of haves rather than among the throng of have-nots.
This frantic striving spurs risk-taking and violent confrontations, some of which escalate into homicide. More than 19 out of 20 murders in these neighborhoods are committed by young men against other young men. It’s the same testosterone-addled crazy-braveness that makes young men so vulnerable to die in acts of stupidity such as train-surfing, to overextend themselves in the water or on the slopes, and to drive so recklessly. Where inequality rises, expect more young men to die at one another’s hands, behind the wheel of their cars and in other accidents. And although many young men die, far more of them end up in prison as a result of their frantic and often illegal jockeying for status and respect.
Young men are far from the only people who suffer from inequality. Older adults wear the ravages of preventable disease, losing decades of active life to obesity, diabetes, cancer and circulatory diseases, often brought on by poor diet, smoking, alcohol and drug abuse.
These effects catch young women, particularly the poorest young women, in the cruellest trap. With so many young men dead or in prison, there aren’t enough potential fathers to go around. On top of that the survivors of the frantic struggle, many of them gang members, petty criminals or addicts can make undesirable partners. For many women, the choice is whether to have a child on her own, possibly with the help of her own mother, or to live a childless life.
Daly and Wilson showed that in those same Chicago neighborhoods where inequality reigned and men were most likely to kill one another or go to prison, young women were most likely to become very young single moms. Some of those women, when questioned about their motives, said that they wanted their mothers to be around to help raise the kids, and the low life-expectancies in their neigborhoods made having children a now-or-never proposition.
Even those women who don’t want to be mothers yet, and who wish to marry, are impacted by the dearth of good men. With an oversupply of young women, girls have to compete intensely for the affections of those few marriageable men that they encounter. And that means sex – an oversupply reduces each individual woman’s value on the marriage market, and that leads, occasionally, to pregnancy and single motherhood.
In this kind of situation, women need access to family planning services, including safe and affordable abortion. It also means supporting girls’ education and womens’ options to participate in the workforce.
So what can Mike Huckabee, and the resurgent American right do to reduce the number of single mothers? For one thing, they could narrow the already widening gap between rich and poor. Just this week, motherjones.com published a suite of 11 graphics that illustrate just how canyonesque that gap between the super-rich and the rest of America is. It really is only the top 1% of American families, the folks who pull in over $1 million a year, whose income grew in the last three decades. Yet Republicans, and to some extent Democrat politicians too, are indentured to the mega-rich. They are committed to extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the folks who can most afford to pay taxes. And it is an item of doctrine that nothing is as un-American as a government that interferes with the course of plutocracy.
Beyond redressing the murderous inequities in income, Republicans could strengthen public support for family planning services. They could ensure, by their funding decisions and by shirking Bible-thumping populism about abortion, that on those rare occasions when poor and desperate women need to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, they can do so safely. They could also step away from their obsession with law and order, and deal with the much tougher issue of how a society deals with young men who have bleak prospects.
The best way to avoid the kind of problems that Huckabee identifies with single parenthood is to stand up to the hateful anti-abortion fundamentalists and the plutocrat bullies who hold the greatest influence on American government. That would take genuine bravery and a love of humanity.
But it’s easier to vaguely criticise a pregnant 29 year-old film star.
Footnote: This is a quick posting on a topical issue, but I deal with many of these issues (though neither Natalie Portman nor Mike Huckabee) in my forthcoming book, Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll: How Evolution Shaped the Modern World, to be published in Australia and New Zealand by New South Books this coming June.