A few ways Isabel Sawhill is wrong on single mothers

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

Photo from Flickr Creative Commons by Mikey G. Ottawa

Writing for the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report – which I will comment more on soon – Isabel Sawhill offers a summary of Moynihan’s prescience. Here’s an excerpt:

…the trends [Moynihan] identified have not gone away. Indeed, they have “trickled up” to encompass not just a much larger fraction of the African American community but a large swath of the white community as well. Still, the racial gaps remain large. The proportion of black children born outside marriage was 72 percent in 2012, while the white proportion was 36 percent.

The effects on children of the increase in single parents is no longer much debated. They do less well in school, are less likely to graduate, and are more likely to be involved in crime, teen pregnancy, and other behaviors that make it harder to succeed in life. Not every child raised by a single parent will suffer from the experience, but, on average, a lone parent has fewer resources—both time and money—with which to raise a child. Poverty rates for single-parent families are five times those for married-parent families. The growth of such families since 1970 has increased the overall child poverty rate by about 5 percentage points (from 20 to 25 percent).

Rates of social mobility are also lower for these families. Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that the incidence of single parenthood in a community is one of the most powerful predictors of geographic differences in social mobility in the United States. And our research at the Brookings Institution also shows that social mobility is much higher for the children of continuously married parents than for those who grow up with discontinuously married or never-married.

At least three things wrong here:

1. This is a very common logical sequence followed by those who say that the decline of marriage (or rise of single parenthood) is the major social welfare problem we face today. They point to the rise of single parenthood. Then they say that children of single parents are doing worse on a variety of indicators. What they don’t say is that while single parenthood has, in fact, skyrocketed, most of the problems they’re concerned with have gotten better, not worse. While single motherhood has been rising, education is up, poverty is down, life expectancy is up, and (since the 1990s) crime is way, way down – for Blacks as well as Whites. The proportion of Black children living with single mothers has almost doubled since the 1960s, but the Black poverty rate is less than it was in 1974.

2. It is one thing to observe that children of single parents do worse in some ways than children of married parents. But Sawhill knows, and should tell you, that studies seeking to identify the direction of causality in that relationship are plagued by unresolved problems of selection bias. We know for sure the effects of single parenthood on children are dwarfed by other social trends.

3. That use of Chetty is completely wrong, a meme started by Brad Wilcox and fueled by credulous reporters. Notice the pivot in Sawhill’s text. First it’s, “Rates of social mobility are also lower for these families.” Then, “Harvard researcher Raj Chetty and his colleagues find that the incidence of single parenthood in a community…” As if the second (the one that mentions Harvard) is related to the first. It’s not. The Chetty paper did not study single-parent families. What they did was look at rates of single parenthood in communities, and use them to predict social mobility. But – and Sawhill would know this matters if she had read the beginning of her own piece, which mentioned the big racial disparity in single parenthood – the paper did not control for race! Please, before spreading this claim, or retweeting (without necessarily endorsing) the supposed experts who do, read this. Because you know what really affects social mobility in the U.S.? Race.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “A few ways Isabel Sawhill is wrong on single mothers

  1. vijay

    You know that most of what you say is not supported by your own references, but you continue to assert them continuously.

    1. “The proportion of Black children living with single mothers has almost doubled since the 1960s, but the Black poverty rate is less than it was in 1974.”
    Using your link (http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/historical/people.html, Table 3) , it is easy to prove what you say is untrue.

    Year and Characteristic Under 18 years 18 to 64 years 65 years and over
    All People Related Children in Families
    Total Below Poverty Level Total Below Poverty Level Total Below Poverty Level Total Below Poverty Level
    Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent Number Percent

    2013 18/.. 11,088 4,244 38.3 10,916 4,153 38.0 25,552 6,099 23.9 3,975 698 17.6
    2012…… 11,078 4,201 37.9 10,931 4,097 37.5 25,154 6,002 23.9 3,893 708 18.2
    1974 3/… 9,439 3,755 39.8 9,384 3,713 39.6 12,539 2,836 22.6 1,721 591 34.3

    Looking at these numbers, it can be clearly seen that black children’s poverty has stayed the same between 1974 to 2013 (39.8 vs. 38.3); increased from 22.6 to 23.9 between 1974 to 2013 for adults; the only group for which poverty has reduced ids for black seniors, and that is by a combination of social security, SSI, medicare and medicaid.

    Repeating the same analysis for white alone, children’s poverty has increased between 1974 to 2013 (11.2 vs. 16.4); increased from 8.3 to 11.8 between 1974 to 2013 for adults; I am not going to talk about white seniors.

    It is but a simple task to show that without supplemental poverty supports by the Government, the total number of non-seniors in poverty will be (14.142 MM children+26.449 MM adults +40 MM lifted out of poverty) of a total of 267 million, or close to 30%. I leave it as an exercise to plot the total number of people that will be in poverty without supplemental government budget support and the percentage unmarried children; they track each other with a lag.

    2. You and I Know that the only way an acceptable result will work is to track children of single parents for 10-20 years, and no one has funding to do that.

    3. “The Chetty paper did not study single-parent families. What they did was look at rates of single parenthood in communities, and use them to predict social mobility.”

    This was the worst comment. Raj knew what he was doing; he cannot say that in public, but what he was doing is to use communities as markers for race ( and class); everyone is aware of segregation by race (and class); Now we know that if you are born and raised in a community that is racially dominated, the chances of upward mobility is lower. You may argue this point endlessly; but people move to suburbs to escape that precisely. You have belabored the Raj Chetty point endlessly in your articles, but it is easy for you to do the sme analysis controlling for race and class, but race and single parenthood are the first and second contributors to the lack of economic mobility. Using a community as an indicator of race or % single parents, does not disprove anything.

    I am not arguing against economic help to single parents in poverty; nobody is arguing against the idea that the single mothers are a result of economic malaise in the community and but not the cause. Failing to see this circular dependence is playing to your gallery; it does not lead us anywwhere.

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    • To clarify on poverty rates, I consulted the poverty numbers for “Black alone or in combination,” which is the better comparison to “Black” from 1974. This shows Black child poverty fell from 39.8% in 1974 to 36.9% in 2013. You looked at Black alone and got a smaller decline (39.8% to 38.3%). Either way: poverty is lower. Even if it were up slightly, the point is the skyrocketing supposed cause of poverty.

      On the supposed lack of longitudinal research, we have several sources of data that provide exactly what you want: NLSY, AddHealth, and PSID. I wrote about this here: https://familyinequality.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/poverty-single-mothers-and-mobility/, citing the work by Musick and Mare.

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  2. I-have-no-clue

    The crime rate is down, but perhaps the prison population is way up over the same time frame. Perhaps crime is down because criminals are locked up more often and longer periods of time.

    So, the thinking may go, reducing the number of out-of-wedlock births will reduce the number of people in prison (even if crime is low, that’s a societal problem).

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  4. Pingback: Haskins / Sawhill Moynihan Prize: The Family Inequality file | Family Inequality

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