Today's Single Mothers Compared to Fantine: How Far We've Come
By Art Carden
Red Mountain Theatre Company here in Birmingham is running Les Miserables through August 3. We saw it last night. It’s the fourth time I’ve seen Les Mis, and it was worth every bit of what we paid for the tickets. Les Miserables is an incredible story of redemption, and the musical (while long) is paced in such a way as to make a serious emotional impact on the viewer.
An ad in the program for The Women’s Fund exhorted viewers to “Help Women like Fantine [one of the main characters] in Birmingham” and noted that “The median income for a single mother with two children is $29,390.”
To what degree is the median single mother of two children in Birmingham “like Fantine,” at least income-wise? Fortunately, Angus Maddison gathered data and provided (very rough) estimates that help us answer that question. In 1990 dollars, per capita income in 1820 France, roughly when the show is set and roughly when Fantine [SPOILER ALERT] dies, was $1135 (it rose to $1191 in 1830 and $1312 in 1832). That’s roughly $3 a day, the historical norm Deirdre McCloskey emphasizes in her series of books on The Bourgeois Era and which she discusses in a 2008 EconTalk podcast.
How does the daily bread available to the average French person of the 1820s compare to the daily bread available to a member of the median single mother-with-two-children household? Converting $29,390 into 1990 dollars with the CPI gives us $16,500. Dividing by 3 gives us $5,500. Dividing by 365 gives us $15 per day.
In the 1990 dollars used by Maddison, the average French person of 1820 enjoyed $3 per day worth of goods and services. A member of the median single-mother-with-two children household today enjoys $15 worth of goods and services, or five times as much as the average person in 1820s France. As Fantine was almost certainly pulling the average down, a five-fold difference in single mothers’ standards of living in 2014 Birmingham compared to 1820 France is probably conservative.
What caused it? It certainly wasn’t redistribution, though I agree with McCloskey, Friedman, Hayek, and a lot of other lions of the free market that there is a case to be made for a guaranteed minimum income and that such a guarantee would be preferable to the current crazy-quilt of anti-poverty programs that make up the welfare state. The median single mother in 2014 Birmingham is at least five times richer than Fantine because we loosed the fetters on free markets and began to esteem men like post-transformation Jean Valjean, men who run “a business of repute.”
So let them eat cake, right? Hardly. As Steven Corbett and Brian Fikkert discuss in When Helping Hurts, there are aspects of poverty that aren’t merely material. People experience, to paraphrase them, poverty of being, poverty of dignity, and poverty of community. These are much tougher nuts to crack.
Materially, there are very few in rich countries like the United States who face the kind of desperation Fantine faced. Socially and spiritually, though, the poor are still with us. Organizations like The Women’s Fund are doing good and important work. Given the importance of just having a job to things like mental health, self-image, and the like, freeing the markets would, I expect, not just allow people to earn higher incomes. It would have the additional effect of allowing them the dignity and sense of purpose that comes with being a producer.
Where should we start? Here’s Daniel Smith’s article “Reforming Occupational Licensing in Alabama.” I think a good first step is to remove rules making it so that single mothers have to ask the government’s permission to provide for their families.