Why it’s rotten to tell someone they’re poor because of when they had their kids

The “success sequence” is an idea from Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill at the Brookings Institution. They want to balance government investment and “personal responsibility” to reduce poverty. By personal responsibility, they mean adherence to what they call “the three norms”: complete high school, work full time, wait until you’re 21 and married to have children. If you do that — and smile while doing it — they’re willing to spot you a little welfare and some education.

I’ll describe it, and some criticism of the idea, then show a little data analysis.

Haskins and Sawhill claim to have analyzed data to show that when you follow all three of these norms, you have a 98% chance of not being poor. This is how they illustrate it (from this slideshow):

success-sequence-slideMatt Bruenig at Demos has an important post explaining how misleading — and wrong — this is. There are three main problems, briefly:

  1. The high school degree and full-time job is doing almost all of the work. With those two hurdles complete, you’re already down under 4% poverty. So the marriage stuff is mostly moralizing for political purposes.
  2. The data they used does not include the information necessary to see whether people were married when they had their children — it doesn’t have marital history. So they didn’t even do the analysis they said they did.
  3. Family complications mess this up badly. In particular, if a person (say, a man), has children with a partner and never lives with them, he shows up as having met the “norms” because the data don’t show him having any children — it’s a household survey, so absent parents aren’t parents in the data.

So if someone gives you the “success sequence” thing, just remember, the analysis is baloney, and the bottom line is decent full-time jobs are what keep people out of poverty (by the official poverty measure, of course).

Analysis

Anyway, I can go a little further using the American Community Survey, which includes data on the year of each person’s most recent marriage, and the number of times they’ve been married. So, limiting the data to first-time married parents, I can check the age of their oldest child and see whether it was born before they were married, and before the parent was age 21. Some of the above problems still apply, but this is something. And it enables me to underscore Bruenig’s point that step three of the success sequence is not pulling its weight.

(Note this analysis is just about the timing of births for people who are currently married. Single parents of course have higher poverty rates that you can’t attribute to the timing of their births without more information than the ACS has.)

Using the 2013 ACS provided by IPUMS, I took all married parents, living in their own households, age 18 or older, married for the first time, with a child under 18 in the household. Then I used the job norm (self or spouse full-time employed), the education norm (high school complete), and the parent norm in two parts (child born after marriage, child born after age 21), as well as other variables, to see their relative contribution to not being poor. The other variables were additional education (BA degree), race/ethnicity, age, sex, disability, and nativity

This figure shows the marginal effects. That is, how much does the chance of being in poverty change with each of these conditions, holding all the others constant at their means? Click to enlarge:

success sequence acs 2013.xlsx

If the oldest child in the family was born before the year of the parents’ marriage, the chance of being in poverty is increased by 0.4%. If the child was born before the parent was 21, the chance goes up by 0.6%. This seems reasonable to me, given the potential hardships associated with single and early parenthood. But compare: Not having a high school diploma increases the chance of poverty by 2.2%, and neither spouse having a full-time job increases the chance by 6.4%.

Remember, these are all effects holding constant everything else in the model. If you just look at the difference between those who fulfill the parenting “norm” and those who don’t, it’s much bigger. Among people with a full-time job in the family and a high school degree, the poverty rate is 2.8% for people whose oldest present child was born after they were married and 21, versus 9.1% for the people who let us all down on the childbearing norm. But that big difference is mostly because of education and race/ethnicity and disability, etc.

In short, this exposes how rotten it is to tell someone they are poor because of when they had their kids. A decent job and some education would mean a lot more than your sermon.

Code

Here is the IPUMS codebook for my download, and the Stata .do file for the analysis.

5 Comments

Filed under In the news

5 responses to “Why it’s rotten to tell someone they’re poor because of when they had their kids

  1. Colin

    A decent job and some education would mean a lot more than your sermon.

    And if you delay having kids until, say, your mid 20s, the odds of you getting some education and a good job go up. So if a sermon results in someone having kids at 25 instead of 17, I’d say you did them a big favor.

    Like

  2. Interesting result. In your analysis you are treating the 3 norms as independent factors, which is not the intent. If you want to accurately consider the “success sequence” you need to include looking at cross effects, for example the change in probability of attaining norms 1 and 2 if achieving norm 3. ie. what is the change in probability of graduating high school if you get pregnant at 16? What is the change in probability of keeping a full time job when you are single, 18, and a parent of 3 children? I’m assuming your calculation of marginal effects is correct, but marginal effect is not the right quantity. I wouldn’t be surprised if proponents are overstating the effects, but not considering the impact of things like pregnancy before high school graduation is certainly an understatement of effects.

    Also – if you are interested in publishing your results as some sort of advice, you should refer to them as “the failure sequence”. The intent of focusing on race and downplaying actions/decisions is meant to foster failure, not success.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Crystal

    I think that having a baby before age 21 reduces the chance that the parent, especially the mother, will graduate from high school and/or hold down a full-time job. Caring for kids is hard, especially for young women trying to complete school or build up a career. So I think that the message should be not “having kids young is a bad thing in and of itself” but “having kids young makes it harder to lay down a good foundation for the rest of your life, such as completing school and getting work experience.”

    Like

  4. Pingback: L.J Zigerell | The Asian American Exclusion

  5. Pingback: The Real Story About Family Poverty | The Reader Magazine

Comments welcome (may be moderated)

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s