Tag Archives: poverty

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).


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.


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


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Getting serious about promoting marriage to end poverty

This expands on some practice-what-you-preach criticism of conservative marriage promotion, with some numbers. I’m not endorsing the approach described here — I’m saying marriage promoters should adopt this if they are serious about promoting marriage to reduce poverty.

At Demos, Matt Bruenig wrote:

After rigging the institutions to capture the majority of the national income and basically all of the national wealth, segregating themselves residentially, intermarrying almost solely in their rich enclaves, and even sealing off their schools from being accessed by the unwashed masses, these rich social conservatives turn around and implore others to marry people that they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people they can’t even bring themselves to make even the most minimal of community with.

In response, Sandy Darity tweeted: “I proposed that a marriage antipoverty strategy should have rich white men marry poor black women.” I don’t want to put the onus for ending poverty just on pro-marriage pundits. Instead — as Darity suggests — we should think in terms of broader policy.

Whose norms?

Marriage promotion is mostly about convincing (educating, coaching) poor people to marry other poor people. That follows from the “culture matters” perspective on marriage decline advocated by some social scientists as an explanation for declining marriage rates. For example, in a New Yorker profile of Orlando Patterson, Kelefa Sanneh writes:

[William Julius] Wilson argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.

Whether the proximate cause is men’s reduced economic prospects or changing norms, the fact is that if poor people changed their attitudes (norms, culture) about marriage — if they put more priority on the importance of marriage and worried less about the economic qualities of the match — there would be more marriage and, they say they believe, less poverty, inequality, violence, and abuse).

An obvious problem with this whole enterprise is that the marriage boosters assume the next marriage they generate through marriage promotion will be as economically beneficial to the participants as the average existing marriage observed in the population. But if one of the reasons for non-marriage is poor economic status, then it follows that the next marriage generated will on average be much less beneficial economically than the average marriage (I expanded on this here). So the plan to reduce poverty by promoting marriage among the poor is running uphill. Or, it would be running uphill if it was running at all, but of course (ridiculous research shenanigans notwithstanding) their billion dollars spent has yet to generate a marriage, so this is really all very generous speculation.

If they really wanted to change “the culture”

For several decades, marriage promoters have been complaining that “the culture” isn’t pro-marriage enough. The latest version of this, from David Blankenhorn and colleagues, seeks to “restore a marriage culture among the less privileged.” But, although it’s true that poor people (especially poor Black people) have seen a faster drop in marriage rates, that’s not where the biggest anti-poverty gains are to be had. If you really want marriage to reduce poverty, and you really think policy can change “the culture” to make more marriages, then what you really need is (as Darity said) some rich (mostly) White men to marry some poor (disproportionately) Black women.

Why not? Is it really more far-fetched to imagine you could change rich White men’s attitudes toward poor Black women than it is to suppose you could “restore a marriage culture” among the poor? Why? Maybe one reason policies to increase marriage among the poor haven’t work is because the economic benefits aren’t great enough. If you were the kind of person that goes in for this sort of policy (which, again I am not), you’d have to assume poor people would be more receptive to the idea of marrying rich people — that’s one important premise of Wilson and Patterson’s perspective. So the problem is rich people don’t want to marry them.

How difficult can this be? Just to put some numbers to the idea, I did the following simple exercise. Take all the poor single mothers — specifically, non-married women living in their own households with their own children, with family incomes that put them below the federal poverty line — and match them up with rich single men.

How many rich single men do you need? With this definition, I get 3.5 million poor single mothers. I started with the richest single man, and went down the income ladder till I had enough to solve the single-mother poverty problem. It turns out you only have to go down to $80,000 per year in income. Here’s the matching, with the race/ethnicity of the two groups shown:

rich men marry poor women.xlsxIf the problem is that poor women are too economically choosy to marry the poor men in their lives, then we could easily lift these 3.5 million single mothers — and the 7.1 million children in their families — out of poverty simply by changing the anti-marriage views of these selfish, rich, single men. Of course, we’d have to reduce racist attitudes also, but not entirely — only a third of the non-Black rich single men would need to open their minds to the possibility of marrying a Black woman. You would have to be creative with the incentives for these men, including consciousness-raising and parenting classes, as well as, for example, Starbucks gift cards and subscriptions to the Economist.

Now, no one thinks you can socially engineer — through shame or tax incentives — the marital behavior of entire populations, so this strategy couldn’t be expected to completely eliminate the problem of single mothers and their children living in poverty. But it couldn’t be less effective than the marriage promoters have achieved with the last billion dollars they spent.


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50 years after the Moynihan report: Hell in a hand basket?

Update, March 14, 2015: In response to a column by Nicholas Kristof, Heidi Hartmann and I published this letter in the New York Times, based on our report.

I had the great pleasure of working with Heidi Hartmann, Jeffrey Hayes, and Chandra Childers — from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) — on a briefing paper marking the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report. The report is published jointly by the Council on Contemporary Families and IWPR, as part of a symposium called Moynihan+50. Our report is here, the full symposium (PDF) is here.

(This isn’t the first time the Moynihan Report has been revisited, of course. Here’s the transcript of a 1992 hearing that featured Senator Moynihan — and a brilliant statement by Stephanie Coontz — before Pat Schroeder.)

Here is our executive summary:

Moynihan’s Half Century: Have We Gone to Hell in a Hand Basket?

In The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, published in 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously argued that the fundamental obstacle to racial equality was the instability of Black families, and especially the prevalence of single-mother families. That same year, he predicted that the spread of single-parent families would result not only in rising poverty and inequality but also in soaring rates of crime and violence. Half a century later, we report that the changes in family structure that concerned him have continued, becoming widespread among Whites as well, but that they do not explain recent trends in poverty and inequality. In fact, a number of the social ills Moynihan assumed would accompany these changes have actually decreased.

  • Even as single-parent families have become more prevalent in all race/ethnic groups, especially among Black families, poverty rates have fallen, partly because of effective welfare programs, and partly because of increased education and job opportunities (especially for women). In 1967 more than 60 percent of single-mother families were poor. Today, according to new, adjusted poverty calculations, that poverty rate has been almost halved, falling to 35 percent.
  • During the period of greatest change in family structure, educational levels rose for Black children and young adults. Today, almost 90 percent of Black young adults are high school graduates, compared with only about 50 percent in the 1960s; Black college completion rates have doubled, from less than 10 to almost 20 percent.
  • Since 1994 juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent for Blacks and Whites alike, even though marriage rates have continued to fall and the proportion of children born out of wedlock has reached 40 percent.
  • Although it is true that single-parent families are more likely to be poor than two-parent ones, we show that fluctuations in poverty rates since the 1990s cannot be explained by changes in family structure.
  • Marriage is no protection against racial inequality. Black and Latino children in married-couple families are, respectively, three- and four-times more likely to be poor than White children in such families.

One of the legacies of the Moynihan Report has been to focus attention on changing family structure, rather than on other factors that are more amenable to policy intervention. While marriage promotion programs have proven ineffective, evidence suggests that increasing employment opportunities and wage levels, anti-discrimination policies, and social safety nets have considerable potential to reduce poverty, increase economic and educational opportunity, and decrease racial inequality.


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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.


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To know poverty proportions, know your terms (Fox News edition)

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:

poverty and marriage 1960-2013

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.


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Doing math one-handed? Inequality and the marriage problem (#asa14)

I’m at the American Sociological Association meetings in San Francisco, on my way over to present the following slides at a session on “Closing the Economic Marriage Gap: The Policy Debate.” Looks like a great session, organized by Melanie Heath, Orit Avishai, and Jennifer Randles, and including Andrew Cherlin, Sarah Halpern-Meekin, Mignon Moore, and Ronald Mincy – with a discussion by Barbara Risman.

I’ve uploaded the slides for my talk, here.

The background is in this post, which I wrote in 2011, called, “Is it a ‘marriage problem’?” Here it is again:

Is it a “marriage problem”?

A self-described liberal (Andrew Cherlin) and conservative (W. Bradford Wilcox) pair of academics have produced a “policy brief”* for the Brookings Institution entitled, The Marginalization of Marriage in Middle America.

There’s no new information or analysis in the report, so I won’t dwell on it. But I’d like to use it to point out a logical problem with pro-marriage social science in general. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, with my comment following:

This policy brief reviews the deepening marginalization of marriage and the growing instability of family life among moderately-educated Americans: those who hold high school degrees but not four-year college degrees and who constitute 51 percent of the young adult population (aged twenty-five to thirty-four). … [b]oth of us agree that children are more likely to thrive when they reside in stable, two-parent homes. … Thus, we conclude by offering six policy ideas, some economic, some cultural, and some legal, designed to strengthen marriage and family life among moderately-educated Americans. … To be sure, not every married family is a healthy one that benefits children. Yet, on average, the institution of marriage conveys important benefits to adults and children. … The fact is that children born and raised in intact, married homes typically enjoy higher quality relationships with their parents, are more likely to steer clear of trouble with the law, to graduate from high school and college, to be gainfully employed as adults, and to enjoy stable marriages of their own in adulthood. Women and men who get and stay married are more likely to accrue substantial financial assets and to enjoy good physical and mental health. In fact, married men enjoy a wage premium compared to their single peers that may exceed 10 percent. At the collective level, the retreat from marriage has played a noteworthy role in fueling the growth in family income inequality and child poverty that has beset the nation since the 1970s. For all these reasons, then, the institution of marriage has been an important pillar of the American Dream, and the erosion of marriage in Middle America is one reason the dream is increasingly out of reach for men, women, and children from moderately-educated homes.

It’s obvious empirically that adults and children in married-couple families, on average, are doing better on many measures than those not in such families. The logical problem is when people conclude from this pattern that the obvious response is to “strengthen marriage and family life.” But, why not try to reduce that disparity instead?

This is the logical equivalent of the Republican mantra that “We don’t have a revenue problem in Washington; we have a spending problem.” That’s only true if you’re doing one-handed math. And the same holds for marriage.

Yes, there is less marriage, and many people are less well off without it. Does that mean we have a “marriage” problem, or a family inequality problem? Is there any other way to help people develop high quality relationships with their parents, complete more education, get better jobs, accrue financial assets and maintain good physical and mental health?

In the categorical math of inequality, you can try (with little chance of success in this case) to reduce the number of people in the disadvantaged category (non-married families), or you can try to reduce the size of the disparity between the two categories.

*I’m not sure, but I think a “policy brief” is a blog post about policy matters, produced on the PDF letterhead of a foundation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. As far as I can tell, this one is a non-peer-reviewed essay which handles sourcing like this: “the findings detailed in this policy brief come from a new report by Wilcox, When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America.” As I’ve pointed out (here andhere), Wilcox’s reports at the National Marriage Project are also non-peer-reviewed essays with a lot of substantially misleading and erroneous content.


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Poverty is not just for single mothers

CORRECTION: The original version of this post had a major error – the second trend was coded wrong, showing percent married instead of percent single! I’ve correct it, and apologize for the error.

Earlier this month there was a funny segment on Fox and Friends where they took seriously a fake social media campaign, supposedly led by feminists, to end Father’s Day. “More of this nasty feminist rhetoric,” and The Princeton Mom (Susan Patton). “They’re not just interested in ending Father’s Day, they’re interested in ending men.”

Then Tucker Carlson jumped in to ask, “Why is it good for women? I mean, there’s a reason there are more women living in poverty now than at any time in my lifetime, it’s because there are fewer married women. I mean, when you crush men, you hurt women.”

His comment is doubly twisted. First, it supposes that the historical rise of single mothers is the result of feminists crushing men (thanks, Hanna Rosin). The decline in marriage is related to the falling economic fortunes of men, especially relative to women, but I don’t think you can lay much of that at the feet of feminists.

Second, are there really more women in poverty now because of single motherhood? Yes and no. Here are three trends (all based on civilian non-institutionalized women ages 18+, from the Current Population Survey):

1. Poverty is rising among all women (but still hasn’t reached 1990s levels)

Although the proportion of children born to women who aren’t married has increased – doubling in the past three decades – that doesn’t tell the whole poverty story. Because women’s employment opportunities increased during that time (and fertility rates fell), women’s poverty rates are lower now than they were in the 1980s and 1990s peaks.

Zooming in on the period from the low poverty point in 2001, you can see that the recent increase in poverty has affected single and married women, and the proportional increase is actually twice as great for married women (more than a one-third increase).


2. The percentage of poor women who are not married has risen (corrected trend)

Nevertheless, the percentage of poor women who are not married has risen. During the 2000s recession, the percentage of poor women who are married hit an all-time low of 30%. Over the last four decades, as marriage rates have fallen, women’s poverty has become more concentrated among unmarried women. Single women have much higher poverty rates than married women, and the vast majority of poor women are not married. However, in the last 15 years, as single motherhood has become more common, the percentage of poor women who are not married has been basically flat.


3. The percentage of poor people who are women is falling

Diane Pearce wrote, “The Feminization of Poverty: Women, Work, and Welfare” in 1978, as single motherhood was increasing and women’s wages relative to men’s appeared flat. As the proportion of poor adults that were women approached two-thirds, this shocking term caught on. However, since then — as women’s earnings increased and wages fell for many men — that proportion has fallen to 58%.


These facts are not the whole story of poverty in the U.S. But they should be enough to stop the politically convenient simplification repeated by the Tucker Carlsons of our time. The problem of poverty is not a problem of women’s failure to marry.

Cross-posted on Families As They Really Are


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