The health science aspect of the story has hardly been mentioned, but it should be. And besides, how can anyone resist writing about this story, even if in the form of a few disjointed snippets.
The story in question is that Republican Wisconsin state senator Glenn Grothman has proposed a bill that would define being a single mother as a “contributing factor” in child abuse. As far as I can tell, the main implication of this would be that state anti-child-abuse messaging and such would start delivering this declaration. There might also be some implications for court cases where “contributing factors” are being considered. The proposal would fortunately not declare that single motherhood is child abuse, in spite the inevitable misinterpretations to that extent (example).
Given that inevitability, though, you have to wonder what Grothman was thinking. One might think that this is a publicity ploy. But he is already notorious in his home state, because of his prominent role on attacks on collective bargaining and the other issues that have turned that state’s government into such a mess, so there is not much notoriety to be gained at home. Maybe he is going for national-level loonyness, angling to be Santorum’s VP pick or something. (This was before Tuesday’s primaries that pretty much assured Romney of the nomination. Of course, simple biology means that Santorum still has a chance: If I could be a major party’s nominee for president if and only if my 64-year-old opponent died in the next few months, I would stick around and take that shot. Well, I would if I wanted to be president anyway — what a bad idea that would be, huh?)
As you might guess, the outcry against this is coming from the American political left. Yet once you get past the naive outcry that misinterprets the proposal, it actually looks remarkably similar to the wars on drugs/tobacco that are pushed by the Democrats and increasingly opposed by the right-wingers.
Note: in pointing out that most of the outcry is naive, I am not implying that the outcry against the proposal that was actually made is not justified — I certainly think it is. But just because someone is attacking a bad idea does not mean they are right. Also, I sympathize with those who cannot figure out what is actually being proposed and claims, given what an utter muddle the press coverage has been. I had to read a half dozen different reports before I started to figure out what was really going on. On the other hand, without that, I might have missed such gems as “single mothers far outnumber single fathers in the state and in the rest of the country”. (Yes, I realize that the “outnumber”, though not the “far”, is probably true, since some unsavory men make a disproportionate contribution; also I realize that they almost certainly failed to notice they had meant to say “custodial” but left it out. Still, it is pretty funny.)
One of the underlying claims used to justify the proposal is certainly true, and has been known for quite a while (despite implications in some of the coverage that this is a new discovery): A child is an order of magnitude more likely to be physically abused by a male partner that is living with him and his mother (regardless of marital status) as compared to the risk of abuse from the biological father. No doubt that biological instinct, the socio-demographics of the women in that situation, the types of men that are more willing to enter into that situation, and other factors all contribute to that.
So, by the standards of modern “public health” making a choice that has negative health effects — no matter how strong the motivations or how difficult the alternative would be — deserves to be condemned, aggressively “educated” against, stigmatized, and when circumstances are just right, to be actively punished. If good, honest, healthy, hard working, moral Americans are going to be subsidizing these no-good smokers/unwed mothers/fatties/junkies, then it is only right that we make it clear that they should shape up.
Remember back when “public health” identified people at high risk of disease and tried to fix the problem rather than fixing the people? Actually, I don’t either.
What makes this worth writing about in this series is that it is such a perfect case of identifying a problem (child abuse), identifying a condition that is strongly associated and almost certainly does cause some of it (single motherhood), and then trying to address the problem by trying to punish the condition. Keep in mind that a government banning, discouraging, and condemning are fundamentally the same thing, differing only in the quantity of punishment imposed for not conforming.
Note to politicians/FDA/DEA/police/etc.: You need to punish people who do things that hurt others but enrich themselves, like armed robbery, banking, or factory farming. You do not need to punish people for things that hurt themselves (and their immediate families) far more than they affect anyone else — they are already suffering plenty of incentives to not be in that condition. Since, in spite of those incentives, they are choosing that condition as the best of their alternatives, perhaps you might want to try to help by creating better alternatives or by improving that condition. Of course, some people argue that you have no business at all involving yourself in those personal/family matters. But even if you do not buy that, how the hell do you justify actively trying to make someone’s personal situation worse, so that a previously inferior alternative starts to look better for them?
By saying that, though, I risk being as bad as the press coverage of this matter, just looking at some extreme or our-team-vs.-their-team aspect and not delving into the interesting legitimate issues. There is a scientific literature that suggests that a highly-imperfect (though not disastrous) two-parent family is better for kids than the alternative, which means that its positives incentives can be created for staying together in spite of the imperfections, action might be warranted. It is also worth working to try to reduce the abuse from (obviously a small minority of) non-biological father figures. Some serious exploration of where to draw the line to maximize welfare would also be interesting (and I am sure it has been done — this is just way outside of my areas of great expertise). Leave it to the press (at least the 20+ reports and blogs I read) to fail to grapple with any of this.
I was also a little disappointed that no one thought to characterize the proposal as the Santorum approach to single motherhood (condemning and punishing it without offering a solution) and suggested that an alternative would be the Romney solution: allowing polygamy to make up for the shortage of available father figures. So I guess that is up to me. (And before my oh so many Mormon readers write to me about that, yes I know, the official LDS church no longer supports polygamy etc. etc.)
Finally, in case what I have written about the issues made the political action seem balanced and thereby suggested that Grothman is not toxic, misogynistic, evil, or loony (and that is not an exclusive or), I should mention that looking at his full agenda makes it clear he is trying to punish single parents and their kids. He all but says that women become single parents to cash in on the sweet deal offered to them by the state (he apparently thinks he is living in Sweden, or at least Massachusetts — dude, you live in fracking Wisconsin, and what you offer is a sweet deal only in comparison to central Africa and Afghanistan). He calls for making public-supported housing more cramped, forbidding those on housing assistance from accumulating more than than a trivial amount of material goods (a limit set so low that someone would have a hard time owning a laptop and mobile phone to try earn a living), and denying those on assistance the right to school choice (it really says something when a government official basically says that forcing someone to attend the public schools is a good way to punish them or at least incentivize them to get off of assistance). He also has apparently fought the notion that the logic of his position calls for making contraception more available, and takes a Limbaugh-esque position on the matter.
I notice that most every article on the topic notes, without further comment, that Grothman, who appears to be about 55, has never been married or had kids. This is in spite of his clear commitment to family values (*cough*). Hmmmmm? It is too bad that beating up on single mothers is not an “outable” offense. (For those who do not know, some gay advocacy groups keep files on which politicians and officials are in the closet, and makes clear that such choice will be respected — so long as they do not take official actions that are actively harmful to GLBT community.)
Oh, wait: This would apply to all lesbian mothers. Oh, this could be fun.