National Post

Page URL:

October 11, 2000

Single parenthood and the bottom line

Making a bad choice is inevitably a costly business

Donna Laframboise
National Post

Recently, J.K. Rowling, the British author of the fabulously successful Harry Potter books, became an official spokesperson for single parents.

Donating US$730,000 of the estimated US$30-million she earned last year to Britain's National Council for One Parent Families, Ms. Rowling says it's not right children are growing up in poverty just because their parents no longer live together. (Ms. Rowling separated from her Portuguese husband seven years ago, when their daughter was three months old, before returning with her to Britain.)

It may not be fair that such children are living in poverty, but let's be honest, it's entirely predictable. While intact families make one rent or mortgage payment each month, broken families make two. While intact families receive one electricity, heating and phone bill, broken families are hit twice. It costs more to keep two kitchens stocked with the basics, and more to run two automobiles rather than sharing one.

Since few people see their paycheques magically double the moment they separate from their spouse, it should come as no surprise that family breakdown is directly responsible for large numbers of kids experiencing a lower standard of living. Rather than being the result of a mean-spirited conspiracy, this is a matter of simple arithmetic.

The question is how best to address the problem of all these kids in poverty. Is it, as Ms. Rowling suggested in a public attack on Tony Blair's Labour government, the job of government to do a "good deal more"?

Perhaps. But despite the fact that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, Ms. Rowling seems uninterested in providing the kind of leadership that might make others think twice before committing mistakes similar to her own. One can't expect to avoid bad decisions, she seems to imply, since they apparently just fall out of the sky.

In an interview with Salon magazine last year, Ms. Rowling all but admitted she chose poorly when she selected her husband. But she hardly seems perturbed by this. "Just because you've got a good brain doesn't mean you're any better than the next person at keeping your hormones under control," she declared.

Yes, and I'm sure Bill Clinton tells himself the same thing every time he has sex with someone who isn't his wife.

In announcing her new role as "ambassador for one-parent families," Ms. Rowling insists struggling single moms such as she was (before Harry Potter transformed her into one of Britain's wealthiest women) "need to be supported, not stigmatized." Despite the fact they chose an incompatible mate, that their children are living in poverty as a result, and that hard-working fellow citizens are supplying the roof over their heads in the form of social assistance, Ms. Rowling thinks it's inappropriate to "place blame." In her view, "people bringing up children single-handedly deserve not condemnation, but congratulation."

Sorry. I believe in compassion. And I believe in a social safety net for those who make mistakes. But lending someone a helping hand after they've screwed up is one thing. Congratulating them for being a total idiot is something else again.

Ms. Rowling says she doesn't want her daughter "to grow up in a society that tells her that her upbringing is second rate." I suppose a society that lies about the downside of single-parenthood is a superior alternative.

Bookshelves of reputable, longitudinal, empirical data demonstrate what anyone with common sense already knows. Children from single-parent families are at higher risk of all sorts of difficulties -- including emotional problems, physical and sexual abuse, juvenile delinquency, high school drop- out, and teenage pregnancy. American studies have found the biggest predictor of crime in a neighbourhood isn't income levels or race. It's the percentage of single-parent households.

Yes, many two-parent families are deeply flawed. But overall, they still produce a higher percentage of well-adjusted children than do other kinds of families.

Yes, many people raised by single parents grow into successful adults. But since the mountains they have to climb are steeper, and their support system is less robust, the casualty rate among these kids is higher.

Any society that truly cares about its children should be broadcasting these facts from its rooftops rather than denying them so some adults can feel better about themselves.

One plus one will never equal three -- no matter how fervently Ms. Rowling wishes otherwise.

Copyright © 2000 National Post Online