For (not against) a better publishing model

I was unhappy to see this piece on the American Sociological Association (ASA) blog by Karen Edwards, the director of publications and membership.

The post is about Sci-Hub, the international knowledge-stealing ring that allows anyone to download virtually any paywalled academic paper for free. (I wrote about it, with description of how it’s used, here.) Without naming me or linking to the post, Edwards takes issue with pieces like mine. She writes:

ASA, other scholarly societies, and our publishing partners have been dismayed by some of the published comments about Sci-Hub that present its theft as a kind of “Robin Hood” fairy tale by characterizing the “victims” as greedy publishers feasting on the profits of expensive individual article downloads by needy researchers.

My first objection is, “ASA … have been dismayed.” There have been many debates about who speaks for ASA, especially when the association took positions on legal issues (their amicus briefs are here). And I’m sure the ASA executives send out letters all the time saying, ASA thinks this or that. But when it’s about policy issues like this post (and when I don’t agree), then I think it’s wrong without some actual process involving the membership. The more extreme case, on this same issue, was when the executive officer, Sally Hillsman, sent this letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy objecting to the federal government’s move toward open access — which most of us only found out about because Fabio Rojas posted it on OrgTheory.

My second objection is to the position taken. In Edwards’ view, the existence of Sci-Hub, “threatens the well-being of ASA and our sister associations as well as the peer assessment of scholarship in sociology and other academic disciplines.”

Because, in her opinion, without paywalls — and Sci-Hub presumably threatens to literally end paywalls — the system of peer reviewed scholarly output would literally die. As I pointed out in my original piece, if your entire enterprise can be brought down by the insertion of 11 characters into a URL, your system may in fact not be sustainable. Rather than attack Sci-Hub and its users, “ASA” might ask why its vendor is so unable to prevent the complete demolition of its business model by a few key strokes. But they don’t. Which leads me to the next point.

The Edwards post goes way beyond the untrue claim that there is no other way to support a peer review system, and argues that ASA needs all that paywall money to pay for all the other stuff it does. That is, not only do we need to sell papers to pay for our journal operations (and Sage profits), we also need paywalls because:

ASA is a nonprofit, so whatever revenue we receive from our journals, beyond what it costs us to do the editorial and publications work, goes directly into providing professional and educational services to our members and other scholars in our discipline (whether they are members or not). … The revenue allows ASA to provide sociologists in the field competitive research grants, pre-doctoral scholarships, specialized career development, and new digital teaching resources among many other services. It is what allows us to work effectively with other social science associations to sustain and, hopefully, grow the flow of federal research dollars to the social sciences through NSF, NIH, and many others and to defend against elimination and cuts to federal support (e.g., statistical systems and ongoing surveys) so scholars can conduct research and then publish outstanding scholarship.

In other words, as David Mamet’s character Mickey Bergman once put it, “Everybody needs money. That’s why they call it money.”

This means that finding the best model for getting sociological research to the most people with the least barriers is not as important as all the other stuff ASA does — even if the research is publicly funded. I don’t agree.

Better models

There are better ways. Contrary to popular misconceptions, we do not need to go to a system where individual researchers pay to publish their work, widening status inequalities among researchers. The basic design of the system to come is we cut out the for-profit publishers, and ask the universities and federal agencies that currently pay for research twice — once for the researchers, and once again for their published output — to agree to pay less in exchange for all of it to be open access. Instead, they pay into a central organization that administers publication funds to scholarly associations, which produce open-access research output. For a detailed proposal, read this white paper from K|N Consultants, “A Scalable and Sustainable Approach to Open Access Publishing and Archiving for Humanities and Social Sciences.” (Others are trying as well; check out the efforts of the American Anthropological Association.)

This should be easy — more access, accountability, and efficiency, for less — but it’s a difficult political problem, made all the more difficult by the dedicated efforts of those whose interests are threatened by the possibility of slicing out the profit (and other surplus) portions of the current paywall system. The math is there, but the will and the organizational efforts are lagging badly, especially in the leadership of ASA.

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Why can’t the texting-panic establishment handle the truth?

Don’t drive distracted, okay? Now for some more updated facts. (Follow the whole series under the texting tag.)

The Diane Rehm show on NPR (Washington station WAMU) did another full episode on the perils of distracted driving. The extremely misleading title of the episode was, “Distracted Driving: What It Will Take To Lower Fatalities.”

The guests were researcher David Strayer; Jeff Larason, director of highway safety for Massachusetts; Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; and Ben Leiberman, the co-founder of Distracted Operators Risk Casualties (DORCs), which is trying to develop the technology (and legislation) to allow police to scan phones at the scene of an accident to determine whether they were being used at the time of the crash.

I am pretty sure that every one of these guests knows that our roads are safer now than they have ever been, and that accident and fatality rates are at historic lows. And yet the entire conversation — without explicitly stating any trend facts — was conducted as if it is self-apparent that the problem is getting worse and worse. Several callers said they see more and more drivers on their phones; someone said one-in-four drivers is using a phone; someone said texting and driving is as dangerous as driving drunk. Maybe more and more people are using their phones while they drive, but that’s not making the roads less safe than they used to be.

Why can’t they handle the truth? Texting and other distractions are dangerous, and people shouldn’t do them — and the roads are getting safer over time. Here are the fatality trends for the last 20 years, from NHTSA:

mva-fatalities

In the last 20 years, fatalities per mile have fallen 38% and fatalities per person have fallen 34%. That doesn’t make texting and driving okay, okay? But it’s true.

Further, much was made in the conversation about the special risks posed by younger drivers, who are said to be less skilled and more distractable behind the wheel. This also highly misleading. A separate data series, maintained by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, has fatal accidents by the age of the driver going back to 1975. This shows that the steepest decline in fatal accidents has been among teenage drivers — a stunning 71% decline in fatal accidents per person in that age group since the peak in 1978. In fact, teen drivers are now involved in fewer fatal accidents per person than 20-34-year-olds:

fatbyage

I can understand that for advocates a story of continuously increasing peril is attractive. That doesn’t justify their refusal to speak facts, but it’s at least predictable. The guests all spoke of the need for more money to be devoted to the problem, more legislation, more awareness — all things that (no offense) pay their personal and professional bills.*

Less forgivable are the journalists who refuse to look seriously at the issue even as they devote inordinate amounts of time to it. This is a serious disservice, because the media-consuming public may want to seriously consider how to allocate resources to address different problems. Call me crazy, but knowing the facts seems important for this process. And in this case it’s not just that the facts are a little out of line with the narrative — they absolutely and dramatically contradict it.

Now for the fact you think I would be reluctant to mention: for the first time in two decades, the rate of property-damage-only accidents has increased for three years in a row. This may be a better measure of accident risk, because the fatality numbers could be partly driven by things like improved medical response time or auto safety devices. Still, property-only accidents per mile are down 21% since 1994 (while mobile phone subscriptions have risen more than 1200%).

proponly

That is an interesting turnaround, worth looking into. Unfortunately, I don’t have much confidence in the current crop of experts to offer a credible explanation for it.

* It’s no more surprising than academic professional association staff defending journal paywalls.

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Delayed parenting and anti-poverty policy

Here’s a preview of talk today at Brown University’s population center.

My basic argument is that policies intended to prevent poverty by delaying parenthood are mostly misplaced, especially with regard to Black women. Not that delaying parenthood is bad per se, but delaying parenthood in the absence of other improvements in people’s conditions is ineffectual in the aggregate, and actually harmful for some populations.

The delayed childbearing argument features prominently in the recent “consensus” on anti-poverty strategy reached by the American Enterprise Institute / Brookings working group I wrote about here. They say:

It would be better for couples, for children, and for society if prospective parents plan their births and have children only when they are financially stable, are in a committed relationship (preferably marriage), and can provide a stable environment for their child.

Isabel Sawhill, a leading proponent of delayed childbearing as anti-poverty strategy, says in her book Generation Unbound, that she is not telling poor people not to have children, but she sort of is. She writes:

It is only fair to expect parents to limit the number of children they have to something they can afford.

The evidence I offer to help argue that this approach is unhelpful includes this paper (the actual new research for the talk), which shows the risk of infant mortality rising with parent age for Black mothers, a pattern strikingly different from White and Hispanic mothers’ (see a discussion here). Here’s that result:

Fig2

Adjusted Probability of Infant Death, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Predicted probabilities of infant death generated by Stata margins command, adjusted for plurality, birth order, maternal education, prenatal care, payment source, and cigarette smoking during pregnancy. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

Of course, infant mortality is thankfully very rare, but it’s the extreme measure for the underlying pattern of women’s health. When infant mortality in a group is higher, their average health is usually worse.

I’m adding to that the following descriptive figures on children’s poverty rates according to how old their mothers were when they were born. This is by necessity limited to children who are still living with their mothers, because I used the Current Population Survey. I show this for all children (black lines), and then for those whose mothers have never married (red lines). The solid lines are official poverty-line rates, and the dotted lines use the Supplemental Poverty Measure. The latter shows lower poverty rates for children whose mothers were younger, because it reflects transfer income and welfare support as well as income from unmarried cohabiting partners.

cpsbrown

For children overall (black lines), being born to an older mother appears beneficial in terms of poverty rates. This fits the standard story, in which delaying births allows women to go further in school and their careers, and get married, as well as being more mature and so on. However, for those whose mothers remain unmarried the relationship is much weaker, and there is no relationship to the SPM. To me this undermines the policy of delay with regard to women who have low probability of marriage during their child-bearing years. Which brings me back to Black women.

I estimated the same pattern by race/ethnicity, this time just using the SPM, in a model that controls for child age, sex, nativity, geography, and mother’s marital status (ever- versus never-married). I didn’t control for education, because schooling is also an outcome of birth timing (so if young mothers don’t go to college for that reason, this would show them more likely to be poor as a result). Here’s the result:

bw-kid-predict-no-educ

For White women there is a strong relationship, with lowest poverty rates for children whose mothers were in their 30s when they were born. For Black and Hispanic women the relationship is much weaker (it actually looks very similar when you control for education as well, and if you use the continuous income-to-needs ration instead of the poverty-line cutoff).

My conclusion is that I’m all for policies that make family planning available, and U.S. women should have better access to IUDs in particular (which are much more common in other rich countries) — these need to be part of better medical care for poor people in general. But I don’t favor this as a poverty-reduction strategy, and I reject the “responsibility” frame for anti-poverty policy evident in the quotes above. I prefer education, jobs, and income support (which Sawhill also supports, to her credit). See Matt Bruenig on the Brookings “Success Sequence” and my op-ed on income support.

Ideals and intentions

Consider this from Sawhill. In her book Generation Unbound, she writes:

‘poor and minority women … themselves do not want to have as many children as they are currently having. Unintended pregnancy rates are much higher among the poor, minority groups, and the less-educated … [free, better contraception] can help poorer and less-educated women align their behavior with their intentions.’ (p. 138)

I think we need to take a little more complicated view of intentions here. She is referring to what demographers call “unintended” births, which means the woman recalls that she was not intending to get pregnant at the time — she either wanted to get pregnant some time in the future, or never. As you can see, such unintended pregnancies are very common:

unintended

However, most poor women think the ideal family size is large. Among young women, 65% of women who didn’t finish high school, and 48% of those with high school degrees but no BA, believe 3 or more children is the ideal for a family:

idealed

For lots of their births, poor women were not ready, or not planning to get pregnant. But it’s also common for poor people to never achieve their ideal conditions for having children — good job, marriage, housing, education, and so on. In that case, with the clock running on their (and their mothers’) health, unintended childbearing is more complicated than just a behavior problem to be solved. It may reflect a compromise between unachievable goals.

In addition to making sure everyone has the reproductive healthcare they need (including more effective contraception), I think we should also help people achieve their long-term ideals — including having the children they want to have — rather than (just) help them realize their short-term intentions.

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Old people are getting older and younger

The Pew Research Center recently put out a report on the share of U.S. older women living alone. The main finding they reported was a reversal in the long trend toward old women living alone after 1990. After rising to a peak of 38% in 1990, the share of women age 65+ living alone fell to 32% by 2014. It’s a big turnaround. The report attributes it in part to the rising life expectancy of men, so fewer old women are widowed.

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The tricky thing about this is the changing age distribution of the old population (the Pew report breaks the group down into 65-84 versus 85+, but doesn’t dwell on the changing relative size of those two groups). Here’s an additional breakdown, from the same Census data Pew used (from IPUMS.org), showing percent living alone by age for women:

pewage1

Two things in this figure: the percent living alone is much lower for the 65-69s, and the decline in living alone is much sharper in the older women.

The age distribution in the 65+ population has changed in two ways: in the long run it’s getting older as life expectancy at old age increases. However, the Baby Boom (born 1946-1964) started hitting age 65 in 2010, resulting in a big wave of 65-69s pouring into the 65+ population. You can see both trends in the following figure, which shows the age distribution of the 65+ women (the lines sum to 100%). The representation of 80+ women has doubled since 1960, showing longer life expectancy, but look at that spike in the 65-69s!

pewage2

Given this change in the trends, you can see that the decrease in living alone in the 65+ population partly reflects greater representation of young-old women in the population. These women are less likely to live alone because they’re more likely to still be married.

On the other hand, why is there such a steep drop in living alone among 80+ women? Some of this is the decline in widowhood as men live longer. But it’s an uphill climb, because among this group there is no Baby Boom spike of young-olds (yet) — the 80+ population is still just getting older and older. Here’s the age distribution among 80+ women (these sum to 100 again):

pewage3

You can see the falling share of 80-84s as the population ages. If this is the group that is less likely to live alone the most because their husbands are living longer, that’s pretty impressive, because the group is aging fast. One boost the not-alones get is that they are increasingly likely to live in extended households — since 1990 there’s been a 5% increase in them living in households of at least 3 people, from 13% to 18%. Finally, at this age you also have to look at the share living in nursing homes (some of whom seem to be counted as living alone and some not).

In addition to the interesting gerentological questions this all raises, it’s a good reminder that the Baby Boom can have sudden effects on within-group age distributions (as I discussed previously in this post on changing White mortality patterns). Everyone should check their within-group distributions when assessing trends over time.

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I don’t give activists unsolicited advice, except: don’t talk to the police

I have previously criticized universities and news outlets for their handling of racism on and around campus (and sexual assault, too). But I’m not in the business of giving activists advice. So I’m speaking out of turn on one side point here, to recommend: don’t talk to the police. (Nothing personal.)

The campus police at UW have released body camera video of them escorting a student from class and arresting him for allegedly spray-painting anti-racist graffiti. (For critical commentary on this situation, here’s a statement from faculty at staff, including a bunch of sociologists; and a letter of support for students from the faculty and staff in Afro-American studies.) Several things are disturbing about this; I’d like to call attention to the conversation. Here’s the video, with my comment below:

(Other videos from the police department, showing other parts of their interactions, are here.)

I have no idea whether this man has broken any laws, and know nothing about his motivations. I’m also not against spray-painting statements in public spaces in all cases; it may be effective and justified, for example in this case at the University of North Carolina:

ssgraf

Sometimes good people do illegal things, for good reasons, and we shouldn’t be surprised when activists get arrested for it. But that’s not relevant to this point, which is just that there is no good reason to talk to the police in a situation like this — at least no good legal reason (there may be good political or other reasons).

From the moment the cop says this (at 1:00), he’s lying continuously:

Alright, man, here’s what’s going on today. We have some information… Is it you, or is it somebody else, because I have information, I just want to get your side of the story…

This is such a generic statement that there’s no need to consider the facts of this situation. He does not want to get your side of the story, he wants to arrest you and make it easy for a prosecutor to get a conviction in his case. This is the clearest real-life example I can remember of this crucial lesson: don’t talk to the police. This is not unique to activists, everyone should know this.

If you aren’t one of the 6 million people who’s watched it already, I highly recommend the first 27 minutes of this video (especially if you, like many activists, are at heightened risk of arrest and prosecution).

Of course, standing up to a trained, armed, police officer who has done this many times is difficult, and I assume I would blow it (again), but I think the more you prepare yourself for the possibility the more likely you are to pull it off.

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Families and modern social theory

Just realized I never posted the syllabus for my new graduate seminar, “Families and modern social theory.” We’re 9 weeks into and I at least am getting a lot out of it. Feel free to share your comments or suggestions. A PDF version is here, but I also just pasted it below.

Syllabus

This course is designed to build knowledge theories of modernity with emphasis on modern families. Thus, it combines some core theories of modernity (Giddens, Bourdieu, Foucault), with key theoretical debates about families and intimate relationships (economics and economic sociology, gender, race), and social change (development and new family forms).

Students will read nine books and a variety of articles. They will write a response paper each week, and an exploratory essay or research report at the end of the semester.

Evaluation will be based on participation, weekly writings, and the final paper.

Part I: Modernity

1. What is modernity?

  • Giddens, Anthony. 1990. The Consequences of Modernity. John Wiley & Sons

2. Modern relationships

  • Giddens, Anthony. 1993. The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love, and Eroticism in Modern Societies. 1st edition. Stanford University Press.

3. Habitus and field

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Practical Reason: On the Theory of Action. Stanford University Press.

4. Discipline

  • Foucault, Michel. 2012. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Part II: Families

5. New families

  • Rosenfeld, Michael J. 2007. The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions, and the Changing American Family. Harvard University Press.

6. Economics over all

  • Becker, Gary S. 1993. A Treatise on the Family: Enlarged Edition. Enlarged edition. Harvard University Press (excerpts TBA).
  • Bergmann, Barbara R. 1996. “Becker’s Theory of the Family: Preposterous Conclusions.” Challenge 39 (1): 9–12.
  • England, Paula. 1989. “A Feminist Critique of Rational-Choice Theories: Implications for Sociology.” The American Sociologist 20 (1): 14–28.
  • We’ll also discuss this terrible video:

7. Economic sociology of intimacy

  • Zelizer, Viviana A. 2009. The Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton University Press.

8. Family economics for real

  • Folbre, Nancy. 2009. Valuing Children: Rethinking the Economics of the Family. Harvard University Press.

9. Gender and families

  • Hartmann, Heidi I. 1981. “The Family as the Locus of Gender, Class, and Political Struggle: The Example of Housework.” Signs 6 (3): 366–94.
  • Ferree, Myra Marx. 2010. “Filling the Glass: Gender Perspectives on Families.” Journal of Marriage and Family 72 (3): 420–39. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00711.x.
  • Yodanis, Carrie, and Sean Lauer. 2014. “What Couples Actually Do: Is Marriage Individualized?” Journal of Family Theory & Review 6 (2): 184–97. doi:10.1111/jftr.12038.10.

10. Black families, uncertainty, and exclusion

  • Burton, Linda M., and M. Belinda Tucker. 2009. “Romantic Unions in an Era of Uncertainty: A Post-Moynihan Perspective on African American Women and Marriage.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621 (January): 132–48.
  • Geronimus, Arline T. 2003. “Damned If You Do: Culture, Identity, Privilege, and Teenage Childbearing in the United States.” Social Science & Medicine 57 (5): 881–93. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(02)00456-2.
  • Collins, Patricia Hill. 2001. “Like One of the Family: Race, Ethnicity, and the Paradox of US National Identity.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24 (1): 3–28. doi:10.1080/014198701750052479.

Part III: Development and change

11. Modernity, development, and demography

  • Thornton, Arland. 2001. “The Developmental Paradigm, Reading History Sideways, and Family Change.” Demography 38 (4): 449–65. doi:10.2307/3088311.
  • Greenhalgh, Susan. 2003. “Science, Modernity, and the Making of China’s One-Child Policy.” Population and Development Review 29 (2): 163–96.
  • Kirk, Dudley. 1996. “Demographic Transition Theory.” Population Studies 50 (3): 361–87. doi:10.1080/0032472031000149536.
  • Lesthaeghe, R. “The Second Demographic Transition in Western Countries: An Interpretation.” In Mason, Karen Oppenheim, and An-Magritt Jensen (eds.). 1995. Gender and Family Change in Industrialized Countries. Clarendon Press.

12. Decoupling, families, and modernity

  • Stacey, Judith. 2011. Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China. New York University Press.

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US policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor

If we want to help kids, it’s time to focus on money, not marriage.

[This piece was originally published by the Washington Post at Post Everything.]

From the first federal social welfare program for Civil War widows to Social Security and the 1960s War on Poverty, government support for poor families in the United States has attempted to enforce a moral hierarchy based on marriage: Widows got pensions they were considered to have earned, for example, while single mothers got shame and stigma for their moral misdeeds.

Since the 1960s, as marriage rates have fallen and women’s employment opportunities have improved, fewer and fewer women rely on husbands for their material needs. Now, the majority of children no longer depend primarily on the income of a married father. And yet, our policies to alleviate poverty still remain focused on correcting the behavior of poor people – especially their marital behavior – rather than addressing poverty itself.

The stated goal of the 1996 welfare reform law, for instance, was not to alleviate poverty but to encourage marriage and reduce single parenthood. The problem was seen as poor character rather than poor income, and the solution was imagined as a matter of replacing the dependency of so-called “deadbeat” parents on the state with dependency on a spouse. Those who insisted on remaining unmarried were singled out for special censure: In the words of one architect of the reform effort, Ron Haskins, “mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”   Today, many policymakers still want to impose conditions on families receiving food stamps and housing support, and as of 2015, marriage-promotion programs aimed at reducing poverty through matrimony had cost the federal government nearly a billion dollars.

One wonders if the money could have been better spent. There are about 6 million poor families with children in the United States — which means nearly 1 in 5 families with children in the wealthiest nation on the planet are living in poverty. My analysis of the latest federal data shows that, on average, these families’ income — including tax credits and all sources of welfare — is about $9,000 below the poverty line. That means ensuring no children grow up in poor households would cost $57 billion a year. (To put that in perspective, that’s how much money we’d get if Apple brought back the $200 billion it has stashed overseas, and paid just 29 percent tax on it – it’s a big problem, but it’s small compared to the wealth of our society.)

We know growing up poor is bad for kids. But instead of focusing on the money, U.S. anti-poverty policy often focuses on the perceived moral shortcomings of the poor themselves. We don’t try to address poverty directly, or alleviate it; we simply try to change the way poor people behave, especially poor parents. Specifically, we offer two choices to poor parents if they want to escape poverty: get a job, or get married. Not only does this approach not work, but it’s also a cruel punishment for children who cannot be held responsible for their parents’ decisions.

Policy that addresses poverty by punishing the poor for their perceived misdeeds plays on some popular misunderstandings, especially about marriage and parenting. Many non-poor people mistakenly believe that our lax attitude toward marriage is behind the child poverty problem. That’s why a Heritage Foundation claim that marriage reduces the chance of living in poverty by 82 percent has been a staple on the Republican campaign trail this season, and welfare money has been diverted from alleviating poverty to promoting marriage among the poor.

Yes, the children of single parents face steeper odds of success than their fellow citizens whose parents are happily married. Many single parents – the vast majority of whom are women – experience chronic shortages of money, time and social support. Their children are less likely to be closely supervised, to be well prepared for kindergarten, to graduate high school, and to make it through young adulthood free from entanglements with the criminal justice system. The intuitive case for more marriage is easy to see.

How then, as the share of children born to unmarried mothers has risen from just 1-in-20 in 1960 to 8-in-20 today, is it possible that child poverty has fallen, educational attainment has risen, and (at least since the 1990s) crime rates have fallen dramatically There are two answers.

First, single parenthood doesn’t just cause these social ailments, it also reflects them. Some of these problems are merely the consequence of whatever caused their parents to be single in the first place: poverty, illness, incarceration, weak relationship skills, and so on. In other words, successful people are more likely to raise successful children and to have successful marriages. Research on marriage among poor Americans clearly shows that the majority want to be married, but they aren’t for a variety of reasons related to their poverty. Faced with poor prospects in a marriage partner, some women reason, “I can do bad by myself,” as reported in the book “Promises I Can Keep,” by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Some couples place marriage on a pedestal, and plan to postpone it until they are financially stable. As one young man with a pregnant girlfriend put it, “I’d rather get engaged for two years, save money, get a house, make sure … the baby’s got a bedroom.” For too many, however, that moment never arrives.

Poverty clearly lowers the chance of a successful marriage, even as being single may make it harder to escape poverty. This pattern is the subject of a long-running debate among social scientists. Although we can’t agree on the exact breakdown of cause and effect, any reasonable researcher will concede it runs both ways.

But the second answer is perhaps more important for today’s poverty debates. It is that the number of single-parent families doesn’t drive the poverty rate – rather, it mostly helps determine which families and children will be poor, not how many will be. How many people live in poverty is largely the outcome of our policy choices, about jobs and wages, and support for poor families. Akey study compared poverty rates and family structure in 18 countries, finding that the United States had the highest rate of poverty among single-mother families – more than 40 percent, compared with 5 or 10 percent in the Nordic countries. No country had as large a difference in poverty rates between single mothers and the rest of the population as the United States  – that’s our unique penalty for single parenthood.

So how could we actually do it? A new report from the Century Foundation – by the respected poverty scholars Irwin Garfinkel, David Harris, Jane Waldfogel and Christopher Wimer – lays out some of the options. They take two approaches, expanding the current child tax credit (CTC), or joining much of the rich world in using a child allowance that gives families with children cash without conditions.

Our current tax policy (principally the CTC and the Earned Income Tax Credit) reduces child poverty to the shameful 17 percent it is from the catastrophic 24 percent it would be otherwise. The problem with these credits is that they only help people with jobs, leaving those who can’t work – which is most of the poorest families – without assistance. They mostly aren’t working because they don’t have valuable skills, have health problems, or can’t manage a job (or jobs) while caring for their families. Yet you need a job to claim the CTC, on the cruel logic that the government doesn’t want to “disincentivize” work. The current CTC costs about $50 billion per year but does almost nothing to help the very poor, because coercing or cajoling them into getting a job is useless. So we have 3.4 million children living in “deep poverty,” in families with incomes less than half of what the government says they need (again, after accounting for all government benefits).

On the other hand, a universal child allowance could help everyone, and it might be more popular since middle-class voters would get a check, too. Although you end up giving non-poor people money they don’t really need (some of which you could tax back), this is better than the tax credits because it more efficiently reaches the poorest families. Using a child allowance, the report says we could cut child poverty in half, and reduce deep poverty by two-thirds – for about $200 billion per year. That seems like a lot – it is, after all, about one-eighth of what the Pentagon has spent on Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq* – but wouldn’t you sleep better at night knowing your poorer neighbors were sleeping better at night?
What about those pro-marriage policies? In short, they have failed; despite more than a billion dollars, marriage promotion programs have produced no increase in marriage. Furthermore, just as our tax policy doesn’t help people who can’t work, marriage doesn’t help people who can’t marry workers capable of supporting them and their children. A child allowance would provide an income floor for those who aren’t married (they’ve been widowed or divorced, had abusive partners, have no one to marry – or, more rarely, don’t want to get married). And it would do so without coercing them into marriage or shaming them for being single, because all parents would get it, married or not.

Our social policy – especially in the post-1996 welfare reform era – says a spouse’s income is a good way to pay for children, and a job is a good way to pay for children, but government support is not. And the people behind our policy feel this so strongly that, rather than shape welfare policy to provide for the needs of children, they have crafted programs instead to pressure parents into either getting a job or getting married. And when neither of those is possible – or they are practically so undesirable that they may as well be impossible – then the suffering of the parent and her children is the cost of teaching that lesson to everyone else.

We know enough now to see that this approach doesn’t work: It doesn’t increase compliance with social norms on marriage and employment, and it doesn’t stop the scourge of child poverty. We can do better.

* Note: In the original I mistakenly described this as the annual Pentagon spending in that region. I have notified the Post of the error, which I regret.

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