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.

10 thoughts on “That marriage-reduces-poverty-82-percent statistic

  1. They will never say this: “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” because that would mean admitting they need to actually create more jobs.


  2. I think it is pretty obvious that being in a stable, loving, natural relationship, one that you are committed to for a LIFETIME, provides a sound emotional basis for one’s life, and sets you up for success in most other areas of life, including economic success. You don’t need to be a sociologist or an academic to figure that one out. It’s something you can see firsthand for yourself. Turning our backs on this truth is what has got us into trouble over the past fifty years or so.


    1. Good lord, that was a lot of stupid in that post, Paul. Dr. Cohen, if you will forgive my insult to the above poster, and perhaps some of my language below. I had to react, because the reality is that “You don’t need to be a sociologist or an academic” (although, thankfully I am) to see that the issue is not marriage at all, but math: You don’t need a spouse in today’s economy, but you do need multiple income earners in a household to deal with your biggest required expense, housing. Rubio’s argument would be much improved if he had just said that you could solve poverty by cramming any 20 income earners making $40,000 annually into a 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom house. (Monthly mortgage in Anywhere, Mississippi, $400/month, HH income $800,000. We’re rich, biatch!) Of course, in those cramped quarters you’d all have to shower with the hose and shit in buckets, because there’s only one bathroom. Paging Captain Obvious: if you really want to reduce poverty, raise the damn wages. Support unionization. Tax the hell out of the rich. Cap executive salaries and limit ownership of stock options. Expand social services. Fix the outdated poverty threshold calculations. Address the out of control housing costs. Institute rent controls. Isn’t this shit obvious? I didn’t even need my fancy sociology degree (full disclosure, it’s a B.A. in Soc) to tell me that.


      1. I think I am in love with you.
        I would add transportation.
        Transportation is a barrier to accessing good jobs.
        The Day Laborer Agencies frequently have van transportation but the wages are so low you stay in poverty, thus dependent on that van.


  3. ANYONE who has ever done anything to actually HELP the impoverished has seen that nearly everyone in the street with nothing (impoverished) is a male with dark skin, and nearly everyone being paid despite doing nothing to give these men houses (fascists) is white and female (statistics). Millions more males than females are dying annually in survival situations (poverty, for instance, is a survival situation) If you go down to I am sure you will find that most of the funding, clothing, the ASSISTANCE is going towards white females…. however that there are less than 5% of the people who are in need of services whom are even female. WOMAN USUALLY EQUALS MIDDLE CLASS AND NOT FROM LEGAL INCOME. stop interrupting your discussion of women being oppressed and arrest her for taking her clothes off for money and pay him that is interrupting your lunch to beg for money, food, and shelter.


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