In a recent interview on Fox & Friends, despite preparing, I found myself not prepared for Tucker Carlson to ask me this:
It’s pretty conclusive that kids who grow up with married parents — biological parents — do way better than kids who don’t. So the fact that the percentage of kids growing up in that environment has been dropping, why shouldn’t we call that a tragedy?
After a little back-and-forth, I came out with this pretty inarticulate statement:
I think we want to think about pros and cons and and challenges that people face in all different arrangements. And part of the point of this report is that we can’t put people in one category and try to come up with a solution. Our poverty problem for example: Only a third of people in poverty now are living in single-mother families. So we have a large problem of poverty in married couple families as well.
My inarticulateness would probably have been even worse if I had noticed that the Fox audience at that moment was being treated to a completely wrong statistic in the caption below our talking heads:
The report I provided to the Fox staff had actually shown that one-third — not two-thirds — of children under 15 live with unmarried parents.
Anyway, my statement, “Only a third of people in poverty now are living in single-mother families,” is pretty much true. On the other hand, the oft-cited Heritage Foundation statement, “Nearly three out of four poor families with children in America are headed by single parents,” is pretty much true, too. How can that be?
To put it as confusingly as possible, the basic issue is that poverty numbers can be reported for different data universes: individuals, families, family households, individuals in families, and families with children. Some families are sub-families — that is, they are in someone else’s household — and some children (if they live in group quarters, or are ages 16-18 and live on their own as neither married nor parents) don’t live in families.
Here are some poverty numbers for 2013 (from various tables here). The rates are just for your information; it’s the numbers in poverty that I refer to below — you can use them to mix and match your own proportions:
Notice that there are 14 million poor people who don’t live in families at all. Some of them have housemates or cohabiting partners that they are sharing income with, but because they’re not technically families that shared income doesn’t count as shared income.
Because, from the 1st and 3rd rows of the table, 15,606/45,318 = .34, my statement that only a third of poor people live in single-mother families was pretty much true. I say “pretty much” because a few of those female-householder-no-husband families aren’t single mothers of children, but rather single women hosting some other family member in their households (such as an older relative).
And because, from rows 12-14, (3,937+607)/6,482 = .70, the Heritage Foundation’s statement that, “Nearly three out of four poor families with children in America are headed by single parents” is pretty much true, too.
So, who’s right?
Well, if you want to talk about the whole poverty problem, it’s fair to say that only a third of it involves people in single-mother families. Maybe by excluding the single fathers from that I’m guilty of shading the number downward to minimize the problem (and I definitely shouldn’t have implied that the rest of the poor people live in married-couple families). I actually did that because the table I get those numbers from (hstpov2) doesn’t report single-man families.
If you want to talk about the problem of children in poverty, then you should use the second panel, which tells you that 57% of children in poverty live with single mothers (8,339/14,659), or if you include single fathers, 65%. That’s what Heritage should do.
The “nearly three out of four” number is true — if you’re OK with 70% as nearly three out of four — but there’s no reason families is the more logical unit of analysis instead of children.
Marriage tracks poverty
Anyway, I was reminded of all this because Brad Wilcox tweeted a link to this editorial from the Tyler Morning Telegraph. The editorial includes the Heritage statistic, and explains why poverty rates haven’t fallen much in the last few years, while unemployment rates have. Quoting Joe Carter of the Acton Institute:
“The findings align with what many family scholars and economists have been predicting: the decline of marriage leads to an increase in poverty. From 2007 to 2011, the American population increased by 10,360,000 while the number of marriages decreased during that same period by 79,000. Over the last few years we’ve seen the same trend: more people, fewer marriages. … The effect of the decline in marriage, coupled with an increase in single parenthood, is that many more children live in poverty than they would if marriage was more common.”
That’s why the headline for the editorial is, “Marriage statistics track with poverty.” To illustrate marriage tracking poverty, I’ve put the two historical trends on the same graph, using this for marriage and this for poverty:
As the chart clearly shows (since 1977 at least), when marriage falls, poverty goes up. Also, when marriage falls, poverty goes down. In math-grammar terms, those two equations reduce to: marriage falls; poverty goes up and down.