Tag Archives: poverty

Poverty is not just for single mothers

CORRECTION: The original version of this post had a major error – the second trend was coded wrong, showing percent married instead of percent single! I’ve correct it, and apologize for the error.

Earlier this month there was a funny segment on Fox and Friends where they took seriously a fake social media campaign, supposedly led by feminists, to end Father’s Day. “More of this nasty feminist rhetoric,” and The Princeton Mom (Susan Patton). “They’re not just interested in ending Father’s Day, they’re interested in ending men.”

Then Tucker Carlson jumped in to ask, “Why is it good for women? I mean, there’s a reason there are more women living in poverty now than at any time in my lifetime, it’s because there are fewer married women. I mean, when you crush men, you hurt women.”

His comment is doubly twisted. First, it supposes that the historical rise of single mothers is the result of feminists crushing men (thanks, Hanna Rosin). The decline in marriage is related to the falling economic fortunes of men, especially relative to women, but I don’t think you can lay much of that at the feet of feminists.

Second, are there really more women in poverty now because of single motherhood? Yes and no. Here are three trends (all based on civilian non-institutionalized women ages 18+, from the Current Population Survey):

1. Poverty is rising among all women (but still hasn’t reached 1990s levels)

Although the proportion of children born to women who aren’t married has increased – doubling in the past three decades – that doesn’t tell the whole poverty story. Because women’s employment opportunities increased during that time (and fertility rates fell), women’s poverty rates are lower now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s peaks.

Zooming in on the period from the low poverty point in 2001, you can see that the recent increase in poverty has affected single and married women, and the proportional increase is actually twice as great for married women (more than a one-third increase).

womenspoverty.xlsx

2. The percentage of poor women who are not married has risen (corrected trend)

Nevertheless, the percentage of poor women who are not married has risen. During the 2000s recession, the percentage of poor women who are married hit an all-time low of 30%. Over the last four decades, as marriage rates have fallen, women’s poverty has become more concentrated among unmarried women. Single women have much higher poverty rates than married women, and the vast majority of poor women are not married. However, in the last 15 years, as single motherhood has become more common, the percentage of poor women who are not married has been basically flat.

fatra-pov2

3. The percentage of poor people who are women is falling

Diane Pearce wrote, “The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare” in 1978, as single motherhood was increasing and women’s wages relative to men’s appeared flat. As the proportion of poor adults that were women approached two-thirds, this shocking term caught on. However, since then — as women’s earnings increased and wages fell for many men — that proportion has fallen to 58%.

womenspoverty.xlsx

These facts are not the whole story of poverty in the U.S. But they should be enough to stop the politically convenient simplification repeated by the Tucker Carlsons of our time. The problem of poverty is not a problem of women’s failure to marry.

Cross-posted on Families As They Really Are

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What they say about race when they don’t say anything about race and poverty

My picture from the 2013 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

My picture from the 2013 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Referring to The Bell Curve, Paul Krugman wrote that Charles Murray was “famous for arguing that blacks are genetically inferior to whites.” In response, Murray wants us to know that the book was not about race and IQ. The research in the book (co-authored with Richard Herrnstein), purporting to show the powerful effect of genes on intelligence and success in America, was about Whites. Its sole concrete statement about race, Murray says, was this:

It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not justify an estimate.

That led to this Twitter exchange:

murray-fire-tweet

Why do so many people think the book was a sociobiological racist tract, when it made only indirect claims about genetic racial hierarchies? Context matters. In the U.S., you can practice racism without speaking about race.

In my teaching, I often discuss the role of male incarceration, mortality, and unemployment in contributing to the difference in marriage rates between Black and White women. And when I show that Black men have incarceration rates many times higher than White men’s, I focus on racism more than race. That is, these inequalities are not the outcomes of race, but of the way racial inequality works — explicit and implicit racism, unequal opportunity, policing practices, incarceration policies, and so on. Sometimes I do use phrases like “low-income communities,” or “inner city areas,” but I try to be specific about race and racism when it’s called for — even though of course it can be uncomfortable, for me and my students, to do that. It’s important because in the U.S. system of inequality racial inequality is not just an outcome: the system doesn’t just differentiate people by class or gender or skills or something else, with a lower-class population that “just happens” to be disproportionately from racial-minority groups.

One thing that frustrates me in the growing conversation about economic inequality is the appearance of a perhaps-too-comfortable stance in which being explicit about economic inequality means not having to address racial inequality. It is true, and important, economic inequality exacerbates racial (and gender) inequality. That’s why this stance frustrates me rather than angering me. But there is a certain politeness involved in talking about class instead of race that sometimes doesn’t help. Of course, this issue is not new at all, having been litigated especially extensively in the 1980s around the sociological work of William Julius Wilson (see, e.g., this collection).

Wilson’s research — the declining significance of race, or, the increasing significance of class — contributed to today’s movement against class inequality (as Krugman’s post illustrates). But it has also been co-opted by people taking the really racist position that inequality is caused by race (rather than racism). That is: poor minorities cause poverty. This position ironically doesn’t have to discuss race at all, because the framing is the dog whistle.

Which brings us around to the flap over Paul Ryan’s recent racist-without-race remarks. Here is a series of quotes to put that in context. None mentions race. Follow the underlined sequence:

William Julius Wilson: “Inner-city social isolation also generates behavior not conducive to good work histories. The patterns of behavior that are associated with a life of casual work (tardiness and absenteeism) are quite different from those that accompany a life of regular or steady work (e.g., the habit of waking up early in the morning to a ringing alarm clock).”

Newt Gingrich: “Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods, have no habits of working, and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday, they have no habit of staying all day.”

Paul Ryan: “We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

Charles Murray: “Try to imagine a GOP presidential candidate saying in front of the cameras, ‘One reason that we still have poverty in the United States is that a lot of poor people are born lazy.’ You cannot imagine it because that kind of thing cannot be said. And yet this unimaginable statement merely implies that when we know the complete genetic story, it will turn out that the population below the poverty line in the United States has a configuration of the relevant genetic makeup that is significantly different from the configuration of the population above the poverty line. This is not unimaginable. It is almost certainly true.”

In this progression, we go from children not being sufficiently exposed to steady work, to children seeing no one working in their daily lives, to multiple generations not even thinking about working, to people who are genetically lazy. That’s something!

What they talk about when they’re not talking about race

In his post on the Paul Ryan comment, Shawn Fremstad compares Ryan to Murray and concludes that Murray is more apocalyptic because he’s warning against a White cultural collapse, not just complaining about a Black one. Murray has perfected the strategy of writing about Whites (including in his latest book, Coming Apart). But I usually think of this as a dog whistle device to protect his mainstream image while whipping up his racist base. That is, if you show that genetic intelligence determines economic inequality among Whites (Bell Curve) or that declining moral standards undermine families and the work ethic among Whites (Coming Apart), then the implications for Blacks — poorer and therefore supposedly more morally decrepit and less intelligent on a population level — are obvious and need not be repeated in polite company. Just say, calmly, “Smoke,” and let (racist) nature takes its course.

But maybe Fremstad is right, that the Full Murray is more extreme than the dog-whistling Ryan. Here’s how he puts it:

In short, today’s Charles Murray thinks the much bigger culture problem—the one that really puts American society’s very survival at risk—is with white working-class people, which is what makes Ryan’s almost-nostalgic dog-whistling about “inner-city” men so striking. The big question here is whether Ryan is willing to up ante, and go for the full Murray by calling out white working-class “culture”, particularly in the suburbs and small towns where so many low- and moderate-income white people live.

I don’t know. But one answer to that came in the follow-up flap, in which Ryan insisted to a reporter that he was talking about all poor people, such as the rural poor, for whom “there are no jobs.” As Jay Livingston points out, that’s not a clarification that was warranted when he was talking about “inner city” men who are “not even thinking about working.”

What does Brad Wilcox have to not say about this?

The other recent entry in this tradition is none other than Brad Wilcox, currently a colleague of Murray’s (and apparently an impressive one) at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). In last year’s attempt to promote early marriage, the “Knot Yet” report, he wrote about the “education and class divide” in non-marital births — and avoided race almost entirely.

But seriously, if you claim to be serious about the serious issue of unmarried women having babies, you can’t politely ignore race and racism. It’s ridiculous (as I’ve argued before, about mobility). This issue simply does not reduce to social class or education level. Look: Black mothers are much more likely than White mothers to be unmarried at every education level.

unmarriedmothers

Among college graduates, Black mothers are 5.4-times more likely than White mothers to be unmarried; for high school graduates it’s 1.7-to-1. Asian mothers who are high school dropouts are less likely to be unmarried than Black college graduates. However you want to address this issue (if you want to address it at all), if you ignore this pattern and only talk about education or social class, you’re either uninformed or dishonest.

Or, you don’t care about Black families. This is exactly what Wilcox exhibited in a shocking interview with James Pethokoukis for AEI. Wilcox said the government should lead a public education campaign to convince people to be married before they have children. Then the question was, “What would be the nature of that sort of PR campaign, and to whom would it be directed?” This was his answer (from the edited transcript):

Well, the first thing is you have to understand is where all the momentum is here. Basically, since the 1970s, you’ve seen pretty high levels of single parenthood and non-marital child bearing among poor Americans and Americans who are high school dropouts. And we’ve also seen in the last really 20 or 30 years that in some important respects, marriage is stronger among college-educated Americans. So, for instance, divorce has come down from the ’70s to the present for college-educated Americans. So there’s been progress there.

But I think in terms of where all the sort of movement is recently, and it’s primarily in a negative direction, it’s among moderately educated Americans who have got a high school degree or some college or kind of classic working-class or lower middle-class Americans. And it’s this particular portion of the population and where about half of their births are outside of marriage today. And they’re at a tipping point. They can go down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their family formation, family life, or we can hold the line, if you will, and try to figure out creative strategies for strengthening marriage in this particular middle demographic in the United States.

What is the “classic working class or lower middle-class American”? Hm. Here I’ll switch to my own transcription of the audio file AEI posted, because the details they edited out are interesting. Pethokoukis asks Wilcox to elaborate, “is this the bottom 20 percent we’re talking about”?

No, no. I’m talking about, essentially, from the 25th percentile, if you will, to the 65th percentile. So, one way to talk about it would be, sort of, you know, in some ways the NASCAR demographic would be one way to talk about it. Actually a large share of the Hispanic population in the United States would fit into this demographic group. You know, it’s sort of this middle American group, both white and Hispanic, where, once again, they’re at kind of a tipping point. And if we can kind of I think get a positive message to this group or these groups about marriage and fatherhood, you know it’s kind of an ideal, it’s a goal. That is part of the solution.

Really. The 25th to the 65th percentile of family income? That is from $32,500 to $85,000 income per year. That includes 33 percent of the African American population, 37 percent of Whites, and 38 percent of Latinos.* So, it’s more or less the middle third of each group. Or, you know, sort of, Whites and Hispanics. And NASCAR people.**

Photo by familymwr from Flickr Creative Commons

Photo by familymwr from Flickr Creative Commons

Now I suppose this is what Shawn Fremstad calls the Full Murray. Wilcox is raising the alarm about Whites, “classic” Americans, who are “at kind of a tipping point.” Just as Ryan invokes the lack of jobs when he gets out of the “inner city,” when Wilcox is talking about “classic” Americans, he says there is still time to stop them from going “down the road of not having marriage as the keystone to their … family life.” With them, “we can hold the line” for marriage. The clear implication is that Blacks passed that “tipping point” already, so that no such intervention is warranted.

*All these numbers are based on the Current Population Survey of the civilian non-institutional population.

** Wilcox presumably assumes NASCAR fans are White, but various sources (like this and this) say Blacks are about 9% of its fan base (can you find the Black fan in the picture above?).

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Brad Wilcox tries to save saving marriage for the marriage movement

Bradford Wilcox and the right-wing family policy community have found a way to make millions of dollars, taking from the welfare budget, to do battle on behalf of the institution of marriage. The premise of their boondoggle is twofold: that increasing the number of marriages will reduce poverty, and that the federal government can accomplish that if it just spends enough of poor single parents’ former money. They’ve gotten the project written into the welfare law. And they have the over-assetted conservative foundations convinced that this is a useful waste of their millions. So they are understandably defensive when social scientists point out that it’s a scam.

 In this guest post, Ohio State University sociologist Kristi Williams responds to Wilcox’s latest commentary.

hands-huckster-cross

By Kristi Williams

In a recent article for the American Enterprise Institute and an op-ed in the Deseret News, W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project critiques my recent briefing report for the Council on Contemporary Families. My report, “Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty” discusses the most rigorous experimental evidence available about the effectiveness of federally-funded relationship skills training programs to promote marriage among unmarried parents. The conclusion: They have failed spectacularly.

Wilcox points to one of the programs in Oklahoma as a success. He writes, “Indeed, the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative has succeeded in helping poor, unmarried couples with children enjoy more stable relationships.” Really? After 36 months, participation in the Oklahoma program failed to improve: (a) couples’ relationship quality or the probability of being married (b) the quality of the co-parenting relationship, (c) father involvement and parenting behavior or, most importantly, (c) child poverty and socioemotional development. From the “Building Strong Families” program report:

mathematica null effects

More concerning is the fact that across the 8 program sites included in the study, participation was associated with modest negative effects on father involvement, father financial support of children, and the likelihood that couple would be living together or romantically involved (although they were no more likely to be married). Although children whose parents were in the control group had slightly higher average scores (1.41) on an index of behavior problems and socioemotional development than children of participating parents (1.38), these benefits were only seen in the 4 sites that included home visits and parenting training. Therefore, the report concludes that the modest effect on behavior problems “is more likely due to the home visiting services offered in these 4 BSF sites than it is to the relationship skills education services that were offered in all BSF sites.”

mathematica negative effects

Why does Wilcox call the Oklahoma program a success? There is only one thing he can possibly be talking about: At the 3-year follow up, slightly more children whose parents participated had lived with both parents since birth (49% compared to 41% in the control group).  But what did this get the children? Not lower poverty, not fewer behavior problems and not more father involvement.  This underscores the point of my briefing report: Focusing on keeping low income single parents together at all costs is unlikely to solve the biggest problems facing single mothers and their children.

The only explanation for Wilcox pointing to Oklahoma as a success is that what he really cares about is keeping couples together and promoting marriage at all costs—regardless of whether doing so reduces poverty and helps children and single mothers live better lives.  It’s one thing if you want to preach publicly about the value of marriage from an ideological or religious perspective. But when you claim that you are doing so out of a desire to reduce poverty and you distort the research evidence in order to support your argument, it’s time to omit the Ph.D. from your byline.

The other central argument in Wilcox’s piece is that pointing to the failure of marriage promotion policies is a straw man because no one believes that marriage is a panacea for the problems facing single mothers and their children. But the public dialogue, much of it framed by Wilcox himself, suggests otherwise. One needs only about 5 seconds and a search engine to find Wilcox telling unmarried parents to “put a ring on it” in the New York Times and in public lectures. More troubling, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio recently said, “The truth is that the greatest tool to lift people, to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.” We could quibble about the meaning of the word, “panacea,” but Wilcox is just wrong when he implies that no one thinks marriage is a central answer to poverty among single mothers. Incidentally, Rubio’s conclusion relies on a fundamental misunderstanding of causality, as described here. Maybe we should forgive Senator Rubio for misunderstanding the data because he is not a trained social scientist. But what is Brad Wilcox’s excuse?

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That marriage-reduces-poverty-82-percent statistic

With PolitiFact addendum at the end.

If you’ve heard about Marco Rubio saying we need more marriage to reduce poverty, you might wonder where his factoid came from.

Rubio said:

The greatest tool to lift children and families from poverty is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82%. But it isn’t a government program. It’s called marriage.

Rubio, Rector

Rubio, Rector

That insight came from this piece by a Heritage Foundation guy, Robert Rector, who is the cartoon-villain embodiment of partisan hackery (see this previous post for some details). Rector wrote:

According to the U.S. Census, the poverty rate for single parents with children in the United States in 2009 was 37.1 percent. The rate for married couples with children was 6.8 percent. Being raised in a married family reduced a child’s probability of living in poverty by about 82 percent.

That’s it! (37.1 – 6.8) / 37.1 = .82, so marriage reduces poverty 82%. You don’t get to be the “intellectual godfather of welfare reform” without knowing a thing or two about statistics.

By the same logic, he should have said, “The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year” — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.

Discussing why this is or isn’t wrong could be a nice methods class exercise.

PolitiFact addendum

PolitiFact evaluated the Rubio statement, and aside from a few insignificant quibbles determined it was true, so they gave it a rating of “Mostly True.” They wrote, in explanation:

We should note that some critics have taken issue with the implications of the statistic Rubio cited. Philip N. Cohen, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, wrote on his blog, “By the same logic, (Rubio) should have said, ‘The greatest tool for lifting children and families out of poverty is getting a job, which increases your income by $40,000 per year’ — because the median weekly earnings of full-time, year-round workers is $771 per week, which is $40,000 per year more than people with no jobs earn.”

Meanwhile, the liberal group Think Progress pointed to a blog post from a few days earlier by the Council on Contemporary Families, a group of academics that study family policy, that said a “nationally representative study of more than 7,000 women found that approximately 64 percent of the single mothers who married were divorced by the time they reached age 35-44. More importantly, single mothers who marry and later divorce are worse off economically than single mothers who never marry.”

These may be valid points. However, in his comments, Rubio did not suggest that government pursue any specific government policies to directly promote marriage. He also said that being a two-parent family “decreases the probability of child poverty,” which sounds to us like a mathematical analysis of the existing data, rather than a suggestion that changing policies to encourage marriage will actually reduce poverty that already exists.

For this reason, we are analyzing the mathematics that underlie his comment question, not the conclusions that can, or can’t, be drawn from the statistic.

It’s not about policy or math, though: the error is about causality. If we made a law that only rich people could get married, the Census data would give you a similar result. And by this reasoning PolitiFact would say it’s OK to claim marriage “decreases the probability of child poverty,” because the math is right. That’s not right.

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The War on Poverty at 50: Swimming against the tide

I have written a brief report for the Council on Contemporary Families, released today, for the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty declaration by Lyndon Johnson: Was the War on Poverty a Failure? Or Are Anti-Poverty Efforts Swimming Simply Against a Stronger Tide?

The figures include this one, showing changes in earnings by gender and education over the past two decades:

fig5-earnings

In between figures and statistics, key points:

  • The suite of social welfare programs introduced or expanded in that era moved millions of people out of poverty and improved the lives of millions more who remained income-poor.
  • In recent years, however, poverty has been rising once again.
  • Focusing on children, our most vulnerable citizens, highlights both the strengths and the limits of our current anti-poverty programs.
  • The high rates of child poverty in America highlight a basic feature about the U.S. system, and its principal vulnerability: ours remains predominantly a market-based system of care.
  • And the multiplication of low-wage jobs that has come with widening inequality is a formidable obstacle to reducing poverty today.
  • Despite frequent claims to the contrary, that government can play a key role in reducing poverty.

The report is paired with an excellent piece by Kristi Williams: Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty? Her bullet points are:

  • The rapid rise in nonmarital fertility is arguably the most significant demographic trend of the past two decades.
  • How can we improve the lives of the growing numbers of unmarried mothers and their children? So far, a dominant approach has been to encourage their mothers to marry.
  • The flaw in this argument is the assumption that all marriages are equally beneficial.
  • Our recent research adds to the growing body of evidence that promoting marriage is not the answer to the problems facing single mothers and their children.
  • A more promising approach is to focus on reducing unintended or mistimed births.
  • If the goal of marriage promotion efforts was truly to lower poverty rates and improve the well-being of unmarried parents and their children, then it is time to take a different approach toward this goal.

Kudos and thanks to the Council on Contemporary Families (of which I’m a board member) for putting this together, especially Stephanie Coontz and Virginia Rutter, who did the work of coordinating, editing, and distributing the reports.

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Blame the poor, “We tried generosity and it just doesn’t work” edition

With all the money we have given them, why are the poor still poor?

One of the meanest right-wing statistical memes about poverty has been popping up a lot this fall. I saw it most recently in this commentary by Christine Kim, who wrote:

Since the mid-1960s, government has spent more than $19.8 trillion (in 2011 dollars) in total on means-tested welfare programs. With 80 such federal programs, targeted government spending for low-income families – including on health, education, housing, and income supports – totaled nearly $930 billion in fiscal 2011 alone. If converted to cash, this sum would be four times what is needed to lift every poor family out of poverty. About half of this annual means-tested spending goes to families with children. If divided among the 14 million poorest families with children, each family would receive about $33,000. Why, then, have poverty rates remained so high for so long? Clearly, the solution to alleviating poverty is not more of the same.

Brookings’ Ron Haskins used the same numbers, rearranged slightly, to write this in November:

We already spend more than enough money on means-tested programs for poor and low-income people to bring them all out of poverty. There were about 46.5 million people in poverty in 2012, a year in which spending on means-tested programs was around $1 trillion. If that money were divided up among the poor, we could spend about $22,000 per person. For a single mother and two children, that would be over $65,000. The poverty level in 2013 for a mother and two children is less than $20,000. So this strategy would work, but giving so much money to young, able-bodied adults would not be tolerated by the public.

This way of manipulating welfare state spending seems to have originated from Robert Rector at Heritage, who offered it in Congressional testimony in 2012.

This meme is — and I am choosing my words carefully — stupid and evil.

It’s stupid because it ignores how poverty is calculated and how “means-tested” money is spent. If you took away Medicaid and housing support alone, the poverty line for a single mother with two children would have to be a lot higher. For example, according to Rector’s original figures (shared here), half of that means-tested money is spent on medical care, mostly Medicaid. So, Haskins, if you took away Medicaid (and Obamacare subsidies), how much would a single mother with two children need to survive? Health insurance alone would cost her more than $10,000.

So is $33,000 per family such a ridiculously generous amount to live on that it would easily lift people out of poverty? Not without the benefits poor people get. Or if they get sick. In round numbers 10 years old, 5% of the population spends half the money on medical care. Using the distribution reported in that paper, $10,000 per family on medical care is not much, if it’s distributed more or less like this:

spendingperfamily

Further, all those non-poor families living on $33,000 in employment income are getting benefits, too, like tax-subsidized employer-provided healthcare, mortgage interest deductions, unemployment insurance, and retirement savings. If you took all that away and gave these non-poor families $33,000 to live on, they wouldn’t be non-poor for long. So the argument is stupid.

It’s also evil, because it says, “We’ve thrown so much money at poor people and it just doesn’t work, so it’s time for them to step up and contribute a little themselves.” The main thing Kim wants them to do is get married. She even says, “If single mothers simply were to wed the father of their child, their likelihood of living in poverty would fall by two-thirds,” and adds that, “contrary to myth the fathers are quite ‘marriageable.’”

The calculations for this are not shown, which is probably just as well. But the idea that the “benefits” of marriage — that is, the observed association between marriage and non-poverty — would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their partners is bonkers. There is a marriage queue (imperfect of course) that arranges people from most to least likely to marry, and on average the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front, more likely to marry and produce the observed “benefits” of marriage. “Marriageable” isn’t a dichotomous condition, but it’s obvious that at any one time the currently non-married are not the same as the currently married.

But back to evil. The idea that we’ve spent so much on poverty that it proves spending doesn’t solve poverty is like saying, “we’ve spent $13 trillion on the military in just the last quarter century, and we don’t have complete world domination yet, so obviously war is not the answer.”

military-spending-88-12

Oh, wait, I do agree with that.

But we don’t spend money on the military and fight wars to fix the world. We do it to fatten defense contractors, provide jobs, prop up unpopular allies, and defend the country from the occasional threat. The defense industry doesn’t have to defend the claim that the spending is a one-time thing to cure a problem.

Giving poor people money — or in-kind benefits — to help them survive is not a solution to poverty, it’s a treatment for poverty. If we had more decency we’d do more of it.

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To Prevent Poverty, Reduce the Penalty for Single-Motherhood

I wrote an essay for Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. It originally appeared on their site, here, and I reproduce it below with their permission. 

The increase in unmarried parenthood in the U.S. remains a genuine concern for children’s well-being and for intergenerational mobility. Unmarried parents in the U.S. are much more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Single parents juggling many competing priorities work more, earn less, and have less time or fewer resources to devote to advancing their own education. But does this ongoing increase in unmarried parenthood consign the country to continuously increasing inequality? Not necessarily.

The problem of poor children in single-parent families is a problem of poverty much more than it is one of family structure. A generation of research shows that the primary source of trouble in these families is low income. Too often these families lack the material resources necessary to provide a secure and stable environment for their children. Additional challenges, such as low parental involvement or supervision, largely result from time poverty—another consequence of low income for the parents in poor families.

Still, there is no denying that single-parent families have high poverty rates. Wouldn’t policies aimed at altering the long-term trend in family structure be a sure-fire way to reduce poverty?

Under this assumption, the federal government – working with some zealous states – has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over nearly a decade attempting to promote marriage among the poor. So sure were the proponents of this policy that it would solve the problem that they paid for it with money from the federal welfare program. The result was no measureable increase in marriage rates – or in, more importantly, well-being – among the targeted groups. Further, the 1996 welfare reform, which shortened welfare eligibility periods and increased other program requirements, was specifically intended to discourage single parenthood and encourage marriage. Although it increased employment among single mothers with limited education, it did nothing to change the direction of the family structure trend.

This experience in failed policies and decades of cultural exhortation and shaming intended to prevent single parenting, combined with evidence that poverty itself is harmful to the future well-being of children, should be enough to show that reducing poverty, rather than changing family structure, is the more rational approach to improving children’s lives.

The persistent poverty gap between single-parent and married-parent families illustrates just how pervasive the problem of poverty is. Of all the challenges single-parent families face, poverty need not be one of them. A recent paper in the journal Demography, by David Brady and Rebekah Burroway, analyzed the relative poverty of single mothers versus the total population, after accounting for taxes and government transfers, in 18 countries. Not only does the U.S. have the highest poverty rate for single mothers among these countries – 41 percent – but we also have a very large difference in poverty rates between single-mother families and the population overall (see figure below). In countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and even Italy, single mothers are hardly more likely to be poor than everyone else. In the U.S. the gap is 24 percentage points, a huge penalty for single motherhood.

Based on their analysis, Brady and Burroway argue that universal anti-poverty programs, rather than those targeted directly at single mothers, appear to hold the most promise. In the context of the American political climate, that provides an important insight. As economic inequality has risen on our political and policy radar, the social stigma for single mothers remains strong. Policy directed toward supporting (seen by opponents as “rewarding”) single-mother families seems unlikely to gain favor among today’s political leaders. On the other hand, universalist policies such as living-wage laws, publicly supported universal preschool education, and universal health care, may fare better.

Regardless, an approach that favors reducing poverty broadly – with the side-effect of trimming the single-mother penalty – likely would be far more effective in improving child well-being than efforts to counsel or coerce low-income people into marriage.

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Diverging responses to family inequality

I have written up my comment from Penn State Symposium on Family Issues. It was prepared in response to a presentation by Sarah McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen titled, “Diverging Destinies Revisited.” Their paper is a followup to McLanahan’s 2003 Population Association of American presidential address. (I wrote a comment on the symposium itself here.) When they finish the volume it will go behind an expensive paywall, so I put the draft paper here in PDF.

Here is the abstract:

Single parenthood, resulting from nonmarital births and divorce, is increasingly becoming associated with lower levels of education for women. Cross-sectional comparisons show that children of married parents are less likely to suffer material deprivation. To reduce hardships for children, therefore, some analysts advocate policies that would increase marriage. I argue that alternative approaches offer more chance of success: increasing education levels and reducing the penalty for single parenthood. There is ample evidence to support both approaches. Education levels are increasing, and are associated with lower levels of child hardship net of family structure. And comparative research shows the negative economic consequences of single parenthood are ameliorable through state policy. In contrast, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent promoting marriage, and the reform of national welfare policy intended to compel poor mothers to marry, have produced no discernible effects on marriage rates or child wellbeing.

Or, even shorter than the abstract, this figure, which shows the logical alternatives for addressing the issue of family structure and poverty for children.

psufig

 

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Two notes on the poverty report

Two quick notes on the new Census poverty report, which mostly showed poverty and income levels flat from the previous year.

Note 1. The share of poor people who live in single-mother families has declined. It’s now 34%, down from a peak of 39% in 1996. That is, 34% of poor people live in single-mother families. It’s been between 34% and 39% for 27 years. I point that out because it’s important to realize the rise of single mothers (see Note #2 below) is not driving poverty rates. I don’t know if it’s significant, but the poverty rate for single-mother families fell from 34.2% to 33.9%, while the overall rate was steady at 15.0%. Here’s the first chart:

povertybyhouseholdtypeNote 2: There was an unusual blip down in the percentage of all (civilian non-institutionalized) people living in single-mother families. And a continued increase in people living in no family (which includes unmarried cohabitors if they have no kids). In the absence of a rise in marriage, I’m guessing this decline in the single-mother family population (a drop of half a million) is related to the recession-driven decline in fertility.

singlemomunrelated

Both charts are from Current Population Survey data, as reported in the hispov2 table (link to spreadsheet file).

 

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Percent describing themselves as “lower class” hits 40-year high

Yipes. Have you seen the General Social Survey responses to the CLASS question lately?

Since 1972, they’ve asked,

If you were asked to use one of four names for your social class, which would you say you belong in: the lower class, the working class, the middle class, or the upper class?

The responses have been pretty stable, with close to an even split between working and middle, and tails of 5% or less in upper and lower. But not anymore:

gss-classIt might not look that dramatic. But let me zoom in on that red line for you:

gss-lower-class

 

I’m sure some of you (like those who have written books on this question) will be able to explain this beyond: wow, this recession made more people poor. The official poverty rate today is about where it was back when “lower class” was at 4%.

 

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