Tag Archives: marriage

Poverty, marriage, and single mother update

With the annual Census report on poverty out, here are two quick updates.

First, updating this post, the share of all poverty (using official rates) found in single-mother families remains lower than it was from 1974 to 2000. Since 1995, as the poverty rate has gone up and down between 10 and 15 percent, the share of poor people in single-mother families has fallen. As of 2015, 34% of poor people are found in single-mother families.


Marriage has declined, and single motherhood has increased, but that has not produced a poverty population more dominated by single-mother families. Of course these families are more likely to be poor than married-couple families, but they’re not the main poverty story.

Second, updating this post a little, it’s important to keep two major trends in the back of your mind when thinking about social change. The first is that marriage has declined precipitously since 1960. It’s unremitting decline is one of the major social facts of our time. The other trend to keep in mind is that poverty rates fell a lot after the 1960s, but since then have bounced around at an atrocious 10-15%. Now try to keep them both in mind at once: marriage falls, poverty goes up and down. This year’s update puts those together (sorry people who hate this kind of figure), as change in the percentage of women married, and change in the percentage of the population poor.


For a recent op-ed on poverty and marriage, here’s the unpaywalled version of my essay in the Washington Post‘s Post Everything.

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Interview: Independence, uncertainty, defamilialization


My photo from Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/Fet9Dc

I had an hour-long discussion about the decline of marriage on WYPR, Baltimore public radio, a couple weeks ago. You can listen to it here. I transcribed a short section that summarizes some of the points I find myself making in different contexts. This is a light edit (including taking out a couple things I disagree with myself on).


Q: Tell us more about some of the factors that are at work here. Some people say, well, back in the day my grandmother of course got married because she wasn’t going to have much of a job anyway, but now women have great jobs, so, that’s why they’re not getting married. True or false?

A: That is probably the biggest factor. Not just employment, but really independence. For women especially but for young adults overall. And that is, increased educational opportunities, increased employment opportunities, and the extended young adulthood, or what some people call extended adolescence. Just going to college into your 20s, and delaying that entry into marriage.

I’m not sure that if people are marrying less or marrying later we should equate this with a decline in respect or the importance of marriage. In some ways marriage is more important now that it’s more often a choice. That is people elevate it in their minds or in the culture because – when everybody had to be married, and it was virtually universal around 1960, it wasn’t something that that people personally chose. And so, yes it was important in the sense that everyone was doing it, but now it’s reached the point where people are much more likely to say: This marriage is not good, it’s not working, it’s not what I imagine a marriage should be, therefore we’re going to divorce. Or: We have a vision for marriage which is exalted, and we want to have our marriage take place when we have arrived, and we’re ready to own a house or a decent place to live, we have good jobs, to provide something for our children – and therefore because of that high view of marriage, we’re going to delay marriage. And so that may end up reducing the numbers of married people also, but not because people don’t value marriage.


One way to think about the high divorce rate – which people are aware of – is it’s a kind of uncertainty that hangs over people. But it’s only one kind. In many ways life is less predictable and more uncertain than it was a few decades ago. And that just makes it difficult for a person to make long-term plans and commitments. We see this in the economic sphere, definitely, where people change careers and jobs more often than they did in the past. In housing, where they may change where they live more often. In a variety of ways our lives are less predictable. And when you don’t know what the future holds in one arena it’s very hard to make a commitment in another. You wouldn’t want to pick your job and make a lifetime commitment to it before you know what your college major is going to be. And in the same way, it’s difficult to make a commitment in marriage before you know what career you’re going to have, or how long you’re going to spend in school. So the uncertainty in one realm translates into cautiousness in others.

[Here I recommended All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister and Going Solo by Eric Klinenberg.]

There are different kinds of freedom in play here, and they’re somewhat contradictory. If you have a long-term commitment, that gives you one kind of freedom, for example the freedom to experiment, to make changes in your lifestyle, to change jobs, to take time off from work. Or things that you can do with the security of knowing that the other person is there to back you up. On the other hand, of course, the freedom of being single is a different kind of freedom, is the freedom to not have the set of burdens and obligations that do come from marriage or any kind of long-term commitment. So I do think it’s possible to consider the pros and cons that go in both ways, and it does get back to that idea of uncertainty in life, and the idea of tying oneself down to a long-term commitment in the absence of predictability in all the other aspects of life just seems increasingly disjointed to people. It doesn’t resonate with a lot of people.

The economic argument for marriage has always been that – like contracts, in the economy in general – when you make a commitment, it increases predictability, and you can make long-term plans and investments. For example, you can take a year off to invest in some training, and not worry that you’re going to end up losing income in the long run. And then you also have the economies of scale, two people sharing one refrigerator and one car is more efficient. And then there also are effects of marriage on people’s behavior. The fact that people are relying on you may make people, especially men, behave more responsibly. That may not have to happen within marriage, but the idea of having people depend on you may make people, for example, focus on their career advancement more than other kinds of ambitions.


So it’s a challenge for our economy and our welfare state to think about: how can we ensure the wellbeing of people who do not have the two-person marriage – if we can’t assume people have that to back them up, economically speaking, and especially their children. But we’ve been going in that direction for a long time. The introduction of Social Security, retirement for older people, the public education system, we’ve been making investments in people to make them less reliant for their survival on their families for a long time, and in the long run that’s an important part of modern society. There’s a downside and an upside to that. The upside is people can act according to their own ambitions and desires individually, with more freedom than they could in the past. The downside is the expense for state institutions of caring for them and their children. It’s a complicated set of tradeoffs, and I think the important thing to realize is we can’t build our policies around the assumption that everybody and their parents are going to be married forever. And if we do that we’re going to leave a lot of people out, and put a lot of people at risk for real hardship.


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Explain to me again how marriage is the problem here

This is one of those things you share with all your friends on social media.


Black married parents are 2.4-times more likely to be in poverty, are 2.1-times more likely to be unemployed, and have one-ninth the median net worth compared with White married parents. So explain to me again how marriage is the problem here.


The other day I picked on someone’s fact meme, and wondered what makes these things work, without offering a constructive alternative. I can’t answer the question I asked in that post (how old are the fathers of teen mothers’ children?), but I can answer some other questions about families and Black-White inequality. So that’s what I did.

Feel free to take these facts (or any others) and make something better.


Here are my sources:

Poverty: 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. The poverty rates were 5% for White married parents and 11.9% for Black married parents. The poverty variable goes from 0 to 501, with 0-99 being below the poverty line, so you specify the recode like this: poverty(r:0-99 “poor”; 100-501 “not poor”). Here’s how you fill out the boxes in the online analysis tool:


Unemployment: Again, 2014 American Community Survey from IPUMS.org. It’s Black and White, non-Hispanic, householders who are married and have their own children in the household. For this one you limit it to people in the labor force (empstat(1-2)) to get the unemployment rate. I did it for men and women combined, getting unemployment rates of 3.1% for White married parents and 6.6% for Black married parents. The numbers are higher for women (3.7% versus 7.3%) but the Black/White ratio is a little worse for men (2.6% versus 5.8%). Here’s how:


Median net worth: I used the Survey of Consumer Finances from 2013, available here. These are also non-Hispanic Black and White parents living with children. The median net worths were $150,500 for Whites and $16,000 for Blacks (Hispanics, incidentally, have $18,750, and the rest are just coded “other”). This data set combines married people with those who are “living with partner,” so this comparison includes cohabitors. (I don’t know how that affects the results, but I’m sure there’s still lots of inequality.) I put my STATA code in an Open Science Framework project here, so feel free to play with it yourself.

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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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Has your marriage lasted 50 years? Congratulations, you’re old

Just kidding: Congratulations, you’re old and have had a long marriage.

The Washington Post magazine has a feature out today called “The secret to a long-lasting marriage.” I don’t have a general comment on it, because I only made it to the third paragraph, and it’s probably worth reading.

But the third paragraph is funny:

They have beaten the odds of death and divorce: Of all current U.S. marriages, only 7 percent have reached the 50-year mark, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

It is certainly true that making it to the 50-year mark of marriage means you have beaten the odds of death and divorce. But that 7% figure has nothing to do with it, because it includes people who got married yesterday!

Here is the breakdown of when people got married, among people married right now (in the 2014 American Community Survey, which has to be the source for that statistic):


So the statistic is correct: only 7% of currently married people have been married for 50 years or more. Good for them! To bad for all those other people they were born so recently.

It’s all in the denominator. Sure, 50-year marrieds are rare, but compared to what?

With the ACS we can answer a more relevant question, which is this: among living people whose most recent marriage was 50 years ago or more, what is their current marital status? This is a little more encouraging: half are still married.


So let’s restate the original congratulatory message like this:

They have beaten the odds of death and divorce: Of all people who tied the knot 50 or more years ago, and who haven’t yet died, only 50% percent have made it this far without divorcing or becoming widowed, according to the American Community Survey.

Many happy returns.


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Marriage and gender inequality in 124 countries

Countries with higher levels of marriage have higher levels of gender inequality. This isn’t a major discovery, but I don’t remember seeing this illustrated before, so I decided to do it. Plus I’m trying to improve my Stata graphing.

I used data from this U.N. report on marriage rates from 2008, restricted to those countries that had data from 2000 or later. To show marriage rates I used the percentage of women ages 30-34 that are currently married. This is thus a combination of marriage prevalence and marriage timing, which is something like the amount of marriage in the country. I got gender inequality from the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Report for 2015. The gender inequality index combines the maternal mortality ratio, the adolescent birth rate, the representation of women in the national parliament, the gender gap in secondary education, and the gender gap in labor market participation.

Here is the result. I labeled countries with 49 million population or more in red; a few interesting outliers are also labeled. The line is quadratic, unweighted for population (click to enlarge).

You can see the USA sliding right down that curve toward gender nirvana (not that I’m making a simplistic causal argument).

Note that India and China together are about 36% of the world’s population. They both have nearly universal marriage by age 30-34, but women in China get married about four years later on average. That’s an important part of why China has lower gender inequality (it goes along with more educational access, higher employment levels, politics, history, etc.). China is a major outlier among universal-marriage countries, while India is right on the curve.

Any cross-national comparison has to handle this issue. China is 139-times bigger than Sweden. One way to address it is to weight the points by their relative population sizes. If you do that it actually doesn’t change the result much, except for China, which in this cases changes everything because in addition to being huge they broke the relationship between marriage and gender inequality. Here is the comparison. Now the dots are scaled for population, and the gray line is fit to all the countries except China, while the red line includes China (click to enlarge).

My conclusion is that the gray line is the basic story — more marriage, more gender inequality — with China as an important exception, but that’s up for interpretation.

I put the data and the code for making the charts in this directory. Feel free to copy and crib, etc.


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Book review: Labor’s Love Lost by Andrew Cherlin

I previously wrote some comments about Andrew Cherlin’s most recent book here, in preparation for a launch event I attended. Here is a full review for submission to Contemporary Sociology.


Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in Americaby Andrew J. Cherlin. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2014. 258 paper. ISBN: 9780871540300.

Andrew Cherlin’s latest book is a concise history of U.S. family trends since the late 19th Century. The history builds a well-argued case for policies to improve family stability, to address the problems of children facing “the chaos of postmodern culture and the constraints of the hourglass economy” (p. 195). The book should serve as a staple in the debate over the causes and consequences family change, offering the most reasonable case for the downside of contemporary trends.

Cherlin frames the history around the post-War 1950s-1960s as a period of peak stability and conformity among working-class families, surrounded by periods of greater instability and inequality in the decades before and after. Peak conformity meant the smallest social-class gap in marriage rates between rich and working-class families, compared with the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, when rich people were much more likely to be married than those in working-class occupations. Cherlin sees the trend in the current period as perilous for children because family instability – concentrated among working-class families – is accompanied by high levels of income inequality and poor support for social mobility from institutions outside the family.

Thus, Cherlin argues, we should consider policies to “lessen the effects of the fall of the working-class family on children” by finding ways to “support stable partnerships without returning to the gender imbalances of the past” (p. 176). He favors policies that would disseminate cultural messages in favor of delaying childbearing, bolster education and training for working-class children and young adults, and raise incomes for those with less than a four-year college degree.

This book should be widely read and taught. It is compellingly written, making a sophisticated set of arguments with original evidence; I recommend it for undergraduate as well as graduate courses. Cherlin’s treatment of the “rise of the working-class family” in the industrial era is well-crafted and original. Especially welcome is the extensive discussion of gender norms and the “masculinity imperative” (p. 30) in the construction of the working-class family ideal. He has a non-superficial view of culture, and incorporates evidence from qualitative research and linguistic trends as well as Census data and economic trends. He also pays considerable attention to Black workers, from their historical emergence from slavery to the effect of declining blue-collar opportunities on their families after the post-War economic peak.

Cherlin’s treatment of the era of peak family conformity addresses the abuse, alcoholism, and women’s alienation that are too-often swept under the rug in accounts that privilege family stability and draw not just from historical nostalgia but “male nostalgia” (p. 92). That includes a revealing and enlightening description of his own family upbringing (he was born to White, working-class parents in 1948), in which his father was happy but his mother – whose abilities were underutilized during her time out of the labor market, and who was prescribed opiates to treat allergies – probably was not. But in the end he had a “happy childhood” (p. 99), and his conclusion about the era returns to the privileging of stability: “All things considered, children received good upbringings in these [1950s] families and experienced stable, two-parent environments while growing up” (p. 100). In the decades that followed, marriage become less common, and less stable, for people with less than a four-year college education, in what Cherlin calls the “fall of the working-class family” (which, as he notes, undermined the very notion of social-class identity for families as opposed to individuals).

Cherlin concludes that the 1950s “was a good era for children,” who “benefited from this familistic culture” (pp. 115-116). But the evidence we have for this is based on the fortunes of a generation which, although born to those families, turned against their norms as adults, riding a wave of prosperity into the women’s movement and abandoning universal early marriage, shotgun weddings, and enforced domesticity. It is ironic that so many people (Cherlin is certainly not alone here) attribute the success of the Baby Boom children to a style of upbringing that they themselves largely rejected at the first opportunity.

Cherlin ably represents the growing chorus of social scientists concerned that poor and working-class parents today are “creating complex and unstable family lives that are not good for children” (p. 5). To his credit, Cherlin’s prescriptions for improving family stability mostly focus on education and the labor market, but the stated goal is the promotion of family stability. Why? For all the research into effects of family instability on children, we know that this factor is not more decisive than its economic precursors; that is, it’s more valuable to have one or more parents with adequate education and income (regardless of their marital status) than it is to have stably married parents, many of whom are time-and resource-poor in our economic and policy environment. This point of contention is important because Cherlin’s case for aiming interventions at family stability – which have, as he acknowledges, no record of success – assumes that the parameters of our stingy and ineffective welfare system are constant.

Cherlin makes a strong case for economic policy to promote employment and wage growth, expanded access to education at all levels, and institutional reforms such as financial regulation and a higher minimum wage. Absent from this discussion, however, is any consideration of our welfare system, including any treatment of family leave policy, child tax credits, guaranteed basic income, or access to health care – all part of the current (albeit lopsided) policy debate. There are a lot of proven policy levers to mitigate the effects of family change. Given this range of options, it is unclear why, even as Cherlin records the abject failure of marriage promotion programs, he nevertheless believes “the message of pregnancy postponement may be worth trying,” in conjunction with efforts to improve the labor market at the low end (p. 183).

In conclusion, Labor’s Love Lost is an important, valuable book, from which many sociologists and their students can learn, and over which many fruitful arguments should emerge.


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