When a virus sweeps through town, it attacks everyone without discrimination. It fells some healthy people along with those who were unhealthy to begin with. If your immune system was already compromised before its arrival, you may suffer the worst. But would we say that your compromised immune system caused the virus?

That kind of misunderstanding dogs our economic discourse of late. There are at least two issues often wrongly conflated — income inequality and poverty. The latter is in part a consequence of the former and also of the marriage crisis that is leaving single mothers as heads of household. Marriage may rescue them from poverty while providing stability to children who may then improve their lot in life. And all of that is good.

But the marriage crisis is tangential to income inequality, which affects married and single-headed households alike. When we say that the 1 percent continues to capture 95 percent of income gains, for example, the 99 percent left out includes virtually all of us, though the poor may suffer the most (“Striking it Richer,” Sept. 3, 2013).

When wages stagnate, when they don’t rise with productivity and profits, that kind of income inequality doesn’t change depending on whether the workers who receive them are married or not. And a child from a stable home may experience both upward mobility and income inequality at the same time. Suppose he moves up in his company from cashier to manager. If salaries for cashiers and managers have remained stagnant despite increased productivity and profits, then his improved position and higher income don’t change the fact of unequal gains.

Thus, while marriage is certainly important, its absence isn’t driving the income inequality that everyone is talking about. And really, that’s kind of obvious; what do single mothers have to do with the fact that CEO pay has gone through the roof?

In a world in which globalization has destroyed the industrial economy and unions have been decimated, are we really going to blame income inequality on the decline in marriage? After 30 years of supply-side economics, huge tax breaks for the wealthy, and industry “self-regulation,” is it fair to say that the lack of “trickle-down” lies with single mothers? After watching bankers and CEOs run the economy into the ground and then escape unscathed via taxpayer bailouts and golden parachutes, are the villains really those at the bottom of the economic pyramid; the ones who haven’t benefitted?

What’s more, any social disintegration among low-wage workers, such as the failure to marry (and I hear it plagues the 1 percent as well), may be a symptom of their economic malaise rather than its cause. In his response to Charles Murray (who describes the disintegration but ignores socioeconomic context), in “Is the white working class coming apart?” (Feb 6, 2012), conservative David Frum writes:

“[Imagine you] are a white man aged 30 without a college degree. Your grandfather returned from World War II, got a cheap mortgage courtesy of the GI bill, married his sweetheart and went to work in a factory job that paid him something like $50,000 in today's money plus health benefits and pension. Your father started at that same factory in 1972. He was laid off in 1981, and has never had anything like as good a job ever since ….

"Now look at you. Yes, unemployment is high right now. But if you keep pounding the pavements, you'll eventually find a job that pays $28,000 a year. … Yet you seem to waste a lot of time playing video games. … You aren't married, and you don't go to church. I blame Frances Fox Piven.”

Frum concludes, “How can you tell a story about the moral decay of the working class with the ‘work’ part left out?”

14 comments on this story

None of this is news to Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson, who authored "When Work Disappears" back in 1996. The same phenomena plaguing white workers today hit black workers first, contributing to the same social disintegration for which they were also blamed. Few commentators mentioned, however, that their work had “disappeared.”

None of us has escaped the effects of economic inequality, however. Elizabeth Warren (pre-politics) has an excellent talk (“The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class,” March 8, 2007) in which she explains how the middle class has been able to obscure its decline as women (from married households) entered the workforce, thus helping to conceal the stagnant wages of men, and by borrowing.

Thus, while marriage is certainly desired, and may help to alleviate poverty and promote the upward mobility of children, its absence doesn’t explain income inequality. The solution to that problem lies elsewhere.

Mary Barker teaches political science in Salt Lake City and Madrid, Spain.