The myth of the entitled single mother remains as relevant as ever

There is a disconcerting myth about single mothers that has been circulating in our society for some time. It was popularized in the Reagan Era as a denunciation of US social welfare policy and resulted in a pointed caricature of a woman on welfare, forever to be known as the “welfare queen” or the entitled single mother.

The narrative of such a woman goes something like this: Not only is she poor, but worse yet, she is unpatriotic and weak. She is nothing more than the vessel for her lascivious desires as she has child after child out-of-wedlock, abusing the luxury of government aid to ensure herself a life of leisure. Her welfare dependency is as much a result of her moral failings as it is of society’s willingness to foot the bill. If “real Americans” get by on what they make out of their bootstraps, then her crime is never wanting bootstraps at all.

Sound intense? Apparently not for Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who invoked this relic of American political discourse this week to shame single mothers out of their welfare benefits. He was quoted at a Lexington Commerce Meeting as saying, “Maybe we have to say ‘enough’s enough, you shouldn’t be having kids after a certain amount.’ I don’t know how you do all that because then it’s tough to tell a woman with four kids that she’s got a fifth kid we’re not going to give her any more money. But we have to figure out how to get that message through because that is part of the answer.”

It is clear that at a time when both Democrats and Republicans seem primed to address the issue of growing income inequality in our country, the myth of the entitled single mother remains as relevant as ever. That problem is, this false characterization of single mothers, particularly those receiving government benefits, ignores the real lives these working mothers lead, undermines the contribution of women to the American economy, and ultimately prevents society from understanding how government funding should be spent to address income inequality.

The bottom line is, the myth of the entitled single mother separates us from the reality that women are the core of the American economy, including single mothers. In the words of President Obama, “when women succeed, America succeeds.” And the truth is, single mothers are single-handedly controlling the future of America. Let me tell you why.

Women are bringing home the bacon unlike ever before. Since 1960, the number of women who are the primary wage-earners for their household has almost quadrupled, such that women now comprise nearly two-thirds of the breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their family. And as it turns out, more than 6 and 10 of the women who are the primary breadwinners in their home, are single mothers.

Women are using that money to boost the American economy. Although some have speculated that women influence anywhere from 70-80% of the consumer spending in their household, it is hard to argue that single mothers don’t control 100% of their household spending. That’s anything from buying cars and computers to purchasing healthcare. With the struggling auto industry, surge in online technology, and new changes in healthcare, that means single mothers are literally at the center of the markets that are defining the ways we live, move, communicate, and stay healthy.

Women are redefining the social contract. Without a second income in the household, families lead by single mothers are also the most vulnerable to economic stress, and in the words of Maria Shiver’s latest report, many are living on the brink of poverty. Growing income inequality and poverty may be the defining issues of our time. The urgency of these problems require us to push new boundaries. Although the traditional social contract exists between the US government and the people, in which we give the government authority to rule if the government will protect our rights and help us when we fall on hard times; the new social contract defines the relationship between businesses and the people. That if we are to work for you and buy your goods, then businesses must also contribute to the general well-being of society by paying fair wages and providing various benefits (health insurance etc).

To make a long story short, businesses aren’t holding up their end of the deal, and it is time to remind them and raise the minimum wage. It is estimated that doing so may be a real solution to lifting some families out of poverty, many of whom are led by single mothers. And as we know, poverty poses one of the greatest threats to the health and well-being of children in the United States, making it also one of the greatest threats to the health of adults, as most children grow up to be adults.

Taken together, it is clear that our ability to succeed as a nation will be defined by our willingness to support single mothers and their families. Be it through their economic contribution to their community or their role in raising the future leaders of this country, these women are fearlessly facing the adversity in their lives, daring to raise children without Rand Paul’s approval, and working towards a better future for themselves and their families. They are not entitled, they are in need of our utmost regard for enduring despite the odds and we should invest in them. Period.

Rhea Boyd is a pediatrician who blogs at rhea, md. and can be reached on Twitter @RheaBoydMD.

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