Today commenters are flocking to Isabel Sawhill’s article defending Dan Quayle’s criticism of “Murphy Brown” the 1990s TV sitcom whose title character — played by Candice Bergen — chose to become a single mother. At the time, Quayle was almost universally criticized as a fuddy-duddy culture warrior. Twenty years later, Sawhill argues, statistics bear out Quayle’s stance: children of single-parent homes, she said, do worse on a full array of metrics Sawhill studied. We found two interesting threads of comments for your consideration.

Additionally, Sawhill herself joins the meta-commentary. Her comments are in italics below the quotes.

Quayle had argued, basically, that Murphy’s motherhood presented a terrible cultural example because most single mothers lacked the kind of resources available to the TV star playing a TV star on TV. Readers debated this:

Tbr66 points out there has always been plenty of norm-supporting television out there, nuclear families doing well; how much could one anomaly possibly hurt? Tbr66 says:

Kids do better in two-parent households. And most sitcoms are about two-parent households. It is not wrong for “Hollywood” to include other types of families among its characters.

Banyansmom disagreed, saying that Hollywood tends to lend a glitzy imprimatur to a situation — in this case not so much single motherhood as single motherhood by choice:

There is a difference, as Dan Quayle knew, between people who *choose* to be single parents, like Murphy Brown, and those who become single parents because of bad luck. His point was that having babies out of wedlock wasn’t something that a popular TV show ought to glamorize. He wasn’t demonizing the widowed or divorced single parent.

Sawhill: I agree.

More vexing to readers was the problem of what we can or should do to help the single parents who already exist, by choice or by circumstance, now that “Murphy Brown” has gone off the air.

Criticism is fine as far as it goes, according to Dr.S1, but it doesn’t go far. Because he sounds very Doctor-y, we invite Dr.S1 to go on a bit:

Mr. Quayle’s fallacy was to assume that condemning our citizens [who], for whatever reason, fall short of that ideal, is helpful in ameliorating the problem.

Given what we know about the relative outcomes of children from single families, it is in the public’s best interest to encourage stable family formations, not to criticize those that fall short of the ideal. This is a problem that can be minimized if we as a society are willing to pay the price of change.

For example, on the government level, the problem can be at least partially solved in the following ways:

1. Increase the length of the school day and year. The school districts that have done this have reported noticeable drops in their teenage pregnancy rates.

2. Increase resources for parents for post-secondary education. Just because someone is a parent, does not mean they cannot learn.

Sawhill: Many people will fall short of the ideal, often for reason that are not of their own choosing, and I greatly respect the many single moms who are doing a great job of raising their kids, against the odds. I also agree that some public supports, such as a longer school year, would help almost all parents. 

But increased resources, congero counters, means money taken from other possible projects, and given to people who have already shown irresponsible behavior. Amputating, perhaps, some compassion from compassionate conservatism, congero says :

Yes, instead of these women independently learning how to get along with a husband, the government should encourage them with financial help so they can have more children out of wedlock? Brilliant! If you choose to be a single parent I don’t think you should expect help from the government.

Sawhill: Single parents, as a group, are much more dependent on government assistance than married parents and so I think we have to balance helping those who really need help with also encouraging people not to start a family before they can afford it. 

Apexmerch suggests some solutions other than direct government assistance to single parents:

The best program would be for the states to aggressively pursue child support from the deadbeat mother or father through tax returns, drivers licenses, or whatever means necessary. I am a single Dad and was just co-habitating [with the mother] and it truly was easier for that union to dissolve.After-school programs are a great help. One easy step would be for Government offices to have after-hours appointments available in the evening for the parent which would not require missing work, make the agencies more friendly to the demands of a single parent.

Sawhill: Child support enforcement and more family-friendly hours in government offices make sense to me as well. 

We here in the PostScript bunker can’t wait for a television show to glamorize after-hours government offices, after-school programs and family planning.