The American Academy of Political and Social Science gives the Moynihan Prize each year to:
recognize social scientists and other leaders in the public arena who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good. The Moynihan Prize is intended to honor those who, like the late Senator, have promoted the use of sound analysis and social science research in policy-making, while contributing to the civility of public discourse and pursuing a bipartisan approach to society’s most pressing problems.
This year’s winners are Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, longtime fellows at the Brookings Institution, specializing in poverty policy. Now that classes are over I’m going to head downtown to hear their speeches.
Both have appeared frequently on the pages of Family Inequality. Looking back at that record, I see that I’ve been pretty negative. Here are the highlights, in chronological order:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
Raising children takes work, and it’s work that produces something of value: adults. Somehow, a slice of our national income needs to be allocated to cover that expense, the future benefits of which mostly won’t return directly to the parents who raise them. We pay for this work in the formal economy all the time, in daycare centers and schools and doctors’ offices – all the places people are paid to care for children. (Paid poorly, however, as Paula England recently explained in a brief for the Council on Contemporary Families.) The one time we don’t want to pay for it is when parents do it for their own children at home. So the support is indirect, from a spouse, or parents pay themselves to do it – using their income from a paid job to give themselves time to raise their children. And when there’s not enough income to cover the children’s needs, we need government support to make possible that unpaid work of raising children.
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.
Here is their comment, in full, with my responses.
Since the issue here is one of perspective in reporting, we (Phil Cowan and Carolyn Cowan) need to say that we were two of a group of academic consultants to the Supporting Healthy Marriage Project.
Thank you for acknowledging that. I noticed that Alan Hawkins, in his comment on the new study for Brad Wilcox’s blog, says he has “published widely on the effectiveness of marriage and relationship education programs,” but doesn’t say who paid for that voluminous research (with its oddly consistent positive findings). More about his Hawkins below.
Social scientists who want to inform the public about the results of an important study should actually inform the public about the results, not just give examples that support the author’s point of view.
Naturally, which is why I publicized the study, provided a link to it in full, and provided the examples quoted below.
It’s true as you report that there were no differences in the divorce rate between group participants and controls (we can debate whether affecting the divorce rate would be a good outcome), and that… [quoting from the original post]
“…there were no differences in the divorce rate between group participants and controls and “there were small but sustained improvements in subjectively-measured psychological indicators. How small? For relationship quality, the effect of the program was .13 standard deviations, equivalent to moving 15% of the couples one point on a 7-point scale from “completely unhappy” to “completely happy.” So that’s something. Further, after 30 months, 43% of the program couples thought their marriage was “in trouble” (according to either partner) compared with 47% of the control group. That was an effect size of .09 standard deviations. So that’s something, too. Many other indicators showed no effect. However, I discount even these small effects since it seems plausible that program participants just learned to say better things about their marriages. Without something beyond a purely subjective report — for example, domestic violence reports or kids’ test scores — I wouldn’t be convinced even if these results weren’t so weak.”
1. A slight uptick in marital satisfaction. The program moved 15% of the couples up one point. But more than 50 studies show that without intervention, marital quality, on the average goes down. And, it isn’t simply that 15% of the couples moved up one point. Since this is the mean result, some moved less (or down) but some moved up. Some also moved up from the lower point to relationship tolerability.
It is interesting that, with so many studies showing that marital quality goes down without intervention, this is not one of them. That is important because of what it implies about the sample. Quoting from the report now (p. 32):
At study entry, a fairly high percentage (66 percent) of both program and control group couples said that they had recently thought their marriage was in trouble. This percentage dropped across both research groups over time. This finding is contrary to much of the literature in the area, which generally suggests that marital distress tends to increase and that marital quality tends to decline over time. The decline in marital distress was initially steeper for program group members, and the difference between the program and control groups was sustained over time. This suggests that couples may have entered the program at low points in their relationships.
Back to the Cowans:
While the effects were small (but statistically reliable), they were hardly trivial. For instance, two years after the program, about 42% of SHM couples reported that their marriage had been in trouble recently compared to about 47% of control-group couples. That 5% difference means nearly 150 more SHM couples than control-group couples felt that their marriage was solid.
There are several problems here.
First, this paragraph appears verbatim in Hawkins’ post as well. I’m not going to speculate about how the same paragraph ended up in two places — there are some obvious possibilities — but clearly someone has not communicated the origin of this passage.
Second, this is not the right way to use “for instance.” This “for instance” refers to the only outcome of any substantial size in the entire study. It is not an “instance” of some larger pool of non-trivial results, it is the outlier. (And “solid” is not the same as not saying the marriage is “in trouble.”)
Anyway, third, this phrase is just wrong: “small (but statistically reliable)… hardly trivial.” For most of the positive outcomes they were exactly so small as to be trivial, and exactly not statistically reliable. Quoting from the report again, on coparenting and parenting (p. 39):
Table 9 shows that, of the 10 outcomes examined, only three impacts are statistically significant. The magnitudes of these impact estimates are also very small, with the largest one having an effect size of 0.07. These findings did not remain statistically significant after additional statistical tests were conducted to adjust for the number of outcomes examined. In essence, the findings suggest that there is a greater than 10 percent chance that this pattern of findings could have occurred if SHM had no effect on coparenting and parenting.
And quoting from the report again, on child outcomes (p. 41):
Table 10 shows that the SHM program had statistically significant impacts on two out of four child outcomes, but the impacts are extremely small. SHM improved children’s self-regulatory skills by 0.03 standard deviation, and it reduced children’s externalizing behavior problems by 0.04 standard deviation. … The evidence of impacts on child outcomes is further weakened by the results of subsequent analyses that were conducted to adjust for the number of outcomes examined. These findings suggest that there is a greater than 10 percent chance that this pattern could have occurred if SHM had no effect on child outcomes.
In other words, trivial effects, and not statistically reliable.
2. You say that “Without something beyond a purely subjective report…I wouldn’t be convinced even if these results weren’t so weak.” You were content to focus on two self-report measures. At the 18 month follow-up, program group members reported higher levels of marital happiness, lower levels of marital distress, greater warmth and support, more positive communication skills, and fewer negative behaviors and emotions in their interactions with their spouses, relative to control group members. They also reported less psychological abuse (though not less physical abuse). These effects continued at the 36 month follow-up [should be 30-month -pnc]. Observations of couple interaction (done only at 18 months) indicated that the program couples, on average, showed more positive communication skills and less anger and hostility than the control group. Because the quality of these interactions of the partners, the effects, though small, were coded by observers blind to experimental status of the participants, meaning that not only the self-reports suggest some positive effects but observers could identify some differences between couples in the intervention and control groups that we know are important to couple and child well-being.
I am confused by this. The description of the variables for communication skills and warmth (p. 67) describes them as answers to survey questions, not observations (e.g., “We are good at working out our differences”). I’m looking pretty hard and not seeing what is described here. The word “anger” is not in the report, and the word “hostility” only occurs with regard to parents’ behavior toward children. Someone please point me to the passage that contradicts me, if there is one.
3. When all the children were considered as one group, regardless of age, there were no effects on child outcomes, but there WERE significant effects on younger children (age 2-4), compared with children 5 to 8.5 and children 8.5 to 17. The behaviors of the younger children of group participants were reported to be – and observed to be — more self- regulated, less internalizing (anxious, depressed, withdrawn), and less externalizing (aggressive, non-cooperative, hyperactive). It seems reasonable to us that a 16 week intervention for parents might not be sufficient to reduce negative behavior in older children.
On the younger children, I discounted that because the report said (p. 42): “While the findings for the youngest children are promising, there is some uncertainty because the pattern of results is not strong enough to remain statistically significant once adjustments are made to account for the number of outcomes examined.”
4. For every positive outcome we have cited, you or any critic can find another measure that shows that the intervention had no effect. That’s part of our point here. Rather than yes or no, what we have is a complicated series of findings that lead to a complicated series of decisions about how best to be helpful to families.
That’s just not an accurate description. There are many null findings for each positive finding, and the positive findings themselves are either small, trivially small, or not statistically reliable.
4. Several times you suggest that giving couples the $9,000 per family (the program costs) would do better. Do you have evidence that giving families money increases, or at least maintains, family relationship quality? Is $9,000 a lot? Compared to what? According to the Associated Press, New York city’s annual cost per jail inmate was $167,731 last year. In other words, we are already spending billions to serve families when things go wrong, and some of the small effects of the marital could be thought of as preventive – especially at earlier stages of children’s development.
At the end of your blog, you rightly suggest a study in which giving families money is pitted in a random trial against relationship interventions. That’s a good idea, but that suggests more research. Furthermore, why must we always discuss programs in terms of yes or no, good or bad? What if we gave families $9,000 AND provided help with their relationships – and tested for the effects of a combined relationship and cash assistance.
We have lots of evidence that richer couples are less likely to divorce, of course. I don’t know that giving someone $9,000 would help with relationship quality, but I’m guessing it would at least help pay the rent or pay for some daycare.
It’s important to acknowledge that we’re not talking about research. The marriage promotion program is coming out of the welfare budget, not NIH or NSF. This study is a small part of it. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on this, of which the studies account for a small amount. If this boondoggle continues, and they continue to study it, then they should include the cash-control group.
5. It seems to us that as a social scientist, you would want to ask “what have we learned about helping families from this study and from other research on couple relationship education?” We would suggest that we’ve learned that the earlier Building Strong Families program for unmarried low-income families had low attendance and no positive effects. A closer reading of those reports suggest that many of the unmarried partners were not in long-term relationships and were not doing very well at the outset. Perhaps it was a long-shot to offer some of them relationship help. We’ve also learned that the Strengthening Healthy Marriage program for married low-income families had some small but lasting effects on both self-reported and observed measures of their relationship quality (we think that the researchers learned something from the earlier study). And, notably, we’ve learned that there seemed to be some benefits for younger children when their parents took advantage of relationship strengthening behaviors.
We always learn something. See my comments above for why this is a stretch. I would be happy to see, and even pay for, research on what helps poor families. We already do some of that, through scientific agencies. My objection is not to the research, but to the program that it is studying, which takes money away from things we know are good.
Here is their last word — as good a defense as any for this program.
We know from many correlational studies that when parents are involved in unresolvable high level conflict, or are cold and withdrawn from each other, parenting is likely to be less effective, and their children fare less well in their cognitive, emotional, and social development. It was not some wild government idea that improving couple relationships could have benefits for children. Evidence in many studies and meta-analyses of studies of couple relationship interventions in middle-class families, and more recently for low-income families, have also been shown to produce benefits for the couples themselves — and for their kids. This was not a government program to force marriage on poor families. The participants were already married. It was a program that offered free help because maintaining good relationships is hard for couples at any level, but low-income folks have fewer financial resources to get all kinds of help that every family needs.
We are not suggesting that strengthening family relationships alone is a magic bullet for improving the lot of poor families. But, in our experience over the past many years, it gives the parents some tools for building more productive couple and parent-child relationships, which gives both the parents and their children more confidence and hope.
What we need to learn is how to do family relationship strengthening more effectively, and how to combine that activity with other approaches, now being tried in isolated silos of government, foundations, and private agencies, in order to make life better for parents and their kids.
In our view, trumpeting the failure of Supporting Healthy Marriage by focusing on a few of the negative findings doesn’t help move us toward that goal.
New results are in from the unrelenting efforts to redirect welfare spending to marriage promotion. By my unsophisticated calculations we’re more than $1 billion into this program, without a single, proven healthy marriage yet to show for it.
The latest report is a study of the Supporting Healthy Marriage program, in which half of 6,298 couples were offered an extensive relationship support and education program. Short version: Fail.
Supporting Healthy Marriage is a federal program called “the first large-scale, multisite, multiyear, rigorous test of marriage education programs for low-income married couples.” The program evaluation used eight locations, with married, low- or modest-income parents (or expectant couples) offered a year-long program. Those in the program group had a four- to five-month series of workshops, followed by educational and social events to reinforce the curriculum.
Longer than most marriage education services and based on structured curricula shown to be effective with middle-income couples, the workshops were designed to help couples enhance the quality of their relationships by teaching strategies for managing conflict, communicating effectively, increasing supportive behaviors, and building closeness and friendship. Workshops also wove in strategies for managing stressful circumstances commonly faced by lower-income families (such as job loss, financial stress, or housing instability), and they encouraged couples to build positive support networks in their communities.
This was a good program, with a good quality evaluation. To avoid selection biases, for example, the study included those who did not participate despite being offered the program. But participation rates were good:
According to program information data, on average, 83% of program group couples attended at least one workshop; 66% attended at least one supplemental activity; and 88% attended at least one meeting with their family support workers. Overall, program group couples participated in an average of 27 hours of services across the three components, including an average of 17 hours of curricula, nearly 6 hours of supplemental activities, and 4 hours of in-person family support meetings.
The couples had been together an average of 6 years; 82% had incomes below twice the poverty level. More than half thought their marriage was in trouble when they started.
But the treatment and control groups followed the exact same trajectory. At 12 months, 90% of both groups were still married or in a committed relationship, after 30 months it was 81.5% for both groups.
The study team also broke down the very diverse population, but could not find a race/ethnic or income group that showed noteworthy different results. A complete failure.
But wait. There were some “small but sustained” improvements in subjectively-measured psychological indicators. How small? For relationship quality, the effect of the program was .13 standard deviations, equivalent to moving 15% of the couples one point on a 7-point scale from “completely unhappy” to “completely happy.” So that’s something. Further, after 30 months, 43% of the program couples thought their marriage was “in trouble” (according to either partner) compared with 47% of the control group. That was an effect size of .09 standard deviations. So that’s something, too. Many other indicators showed no effect.
However, I discount even these small effects since it seems plausible that program participants just learned to say better things about their marriages. Without something beyond a purely subjective report — for example, domestic violence reports or kids’ test scores — I wouldn’t be convinced even if these results weren’t so weak.
What did this cost? Round numbers: $9,100 per couple, not including evaluation or start-up costs. That would be $29 million for half the 6,298 couples. The program staff and evaluators should have thanked the poor families that involuntarily gave up that money from the welfare budget in the service of the marriage-promotion agenda. We know that cash would have come in handy – so thanks, welfare!
The mild-mannered researchers, realizing (one can only hope) that their work on this boondoggle is coming to an end, conclude:
It is worthwhile considering whether this amount of money could be spent in ways that bring about more substantial effects on families and children.
For example, giving the poor couples $9,000.
Trail of program evaluation tears
We have seen results this bad before. The Building Strong Families (BSF) program, also thoroughly evaluated, was a complete bust as well:
Some of the people trying to bolster these programs — researchers, it must be said, who are supported by the programs — have produced almost comically bad research, such as this disaster of an analysis I reported on earlier.
Now it’s time to prepare ourselves for the rebuttals of the marriage promoters, who are by now quite used to responding to this kind of news.
We shouldn’t expect government programs to work. Just look at Head Start. Of course, lots of programs fail. And, specifically, some large studies have failed to show that kids whose parents were offered Head Start programs do better than those whose parents were not. But Head Start is offering a service to parents who want it, that most of them would buy on their own if it were not offered. Head Start might fail at lifting children out of poverty while succeeding at providing a valuable, need-based service to low-income families.
Rich people get marriage counseling, so why shouldn’t poor people? As you can imagine, I am all for giving poor people all the free goods and services they can carry. Just make it totally voluntary, don’t do it to change their behavior to fit your moral standards, and don’t pay for it by taking cash out of the pockets of single-parent families. I really am all in favor of marriage counseling for people who want it, but this is not the policy platform to get that done.
These small subjectively-measured benefits are actually very important, and were really the point anyway. No, the point was to promote marriage, from the welfare law itself (described here) to the Healthy Marriage Initiative. If the point was to make poor people happier Congress never would have gone for it.
We have to keep trying. We need more programs and more research. If you want to promote marriage, here’s a research plan: have a third group in the study — in addition to the program and control group — who get cash equivalent to the cost of the service. See how well the cash group does, because that’s the outcome you need to surpass to prove this policy a success.
Everyone loves marriage these days. But a lot of people like to think of promoting marriage as a way to reduce poverty, and with that they believe poor people are that way because they’re not married. That’s mostly backwards.
With all the money we have given them, why are the poor still poor?
One of the meanest right-wing statistical memes about poverty has been popping up a lot this fall. I saw it most recently in this commentary by Christine Kim, who wrote:
Since the mid-1960s, government has spent more than $19.8 trillion (in 2011 dollars) in total on means-tested welfare programs. With 80 such federal programs, targeted government spending for low-income families – including on health, education, housing, and income supports – totaled nearly $930 billion in fiscal 2011 alone. If converted to cash, this sum would be four times what is needed to lift every poor family out of poverty. About half of this annual means-tested spending goes to families with children. If divided among the 14 million poorest families with children, each family would receive about $33,000. Why, then, have poverty rates remained so high for so long? Clearly, the solution to alleviating poverty is not more of the same.
Brookings’ Ron Haskins used the same numbers, rearranged slightly, to write this in November:
We already spend more than enough money on means-tested programs for poor and low-income people to bring them all out of poverty. There were about 46.5 million people in poverty in 2012, a year in which spending on means-tested programs was around $1 trillion. If that money were divided up among the poor, we could spend about $22,000 per person. For a single mother and two children, that would be over $65,000. The poverty level in 2013 for a mother and two children is less than $20,000. So this strategy would work, but giving so much money to young, able-bodied adults would not be tolerated by the public.
This way of manipulating welfare state spending seems to have originated from Robert Rector at Heritage, who offered it in Congressional testimony in 2012.
This meme is — and I am choosing my words carefully — stupid and evil.
It’s stupid because it ignores how poverty is calculated and how “means-tested” money is spent. If you took away Medicaid and housing support alone, the poverty line for a single mother with two children would have to be a lot higher. For example, according to Rector’s original figures (shared here), half of that means-tested money is spent on medical care, mostly Medicaid. So, Haskins, if you took away Medicaid (and Obamacare subsidies), how much would a single mother with two children need to survive? Health insurance alone would cost her more than $10,000.
So is $33,000 per family such a ridiculously generous amount to live on that it would easily lift people out of poverty? Not without the benefits poor people get. Or if they get sick. In round numbers 10 years old, 5% of the population spends half the money on medical care. Using the distribution reported in that paper, $10,000 per family on medical care is not much, if it’s distributed more or less like this:
Further, all those non-poor families living on $33,000 in employment income are getting benefits, too, like tax-subsidized employer-provided healthcare, mortgage interest deductions, unemployment insurance, and retirement savings. If you took all that away and gave these non-poor families $33,000 to live on, they wouldn’t be non-poor for long. So the argument is stupid.
It’s also evil, because it says, “We’ve thrown so much money at poor people and it just doesn’t work, so it’s time for them to step up and contribute a little themselves.” The main thing Kim wants them to do is get married. She even says, “If single mothers simply were to wed the father of their child, their likelihood of living in poverty would fall by two-thirds,” and adds that, “contrary to myth the fathers are quite ‘marriageable.'”
The calculations for this are not shown, which is probably just as well. But the idea that the “benefits” of marriage — that is, the observed association between marriage and non-poverty — would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their partners is bonkers. There is a marriage queue (imperfect of course) that arranges people from most to least likely to marry, and on average the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front, more likely to marry and produce the observed “benefits” of marriage. “Marriageable” isn’t a dichotomous condition, but it’s obvious that at any one time the currently non-married are not the same as the currently married.
But back to evil. The idea that we’ve spent so much on poverty that it proves spending doesn’t solve poverty is like saying, “we’ve spent $13 trillion on the military in just the last quarter century, and we don’t have complete world domination yet, so obviously war is not the answer.”
Oh, wait, I do agree with that.
But we don’t spend money on the military and fight wars to fix the world. We do it to fatten defense contractors, provide jobs, prop up unpopular allies, and defend the country from the occasional threat. The defense industry doesn’t have to defend the claim that the spending is a one-time thing to cure a problem.
Giving poor people money — or in-kind benefits — to help them survive is not a solution to poverty, it’s a treatment for poverty. If we had more decency we’d do more of it.
The increase in unmarried parenthood in the U.S. remains a genuine concern for children’s well-being and for intergenerational mobility. Unmarried parents in the U.S. are much more likely to be poor than their married counterparts. Single parents juggling many competing priorities work more, earn less, and have less time or fewer resources to devote to advancing their own education. But does this ongoing increase in unmarried parenthood consign the country to continuously increasing inequality? Not necessarily.
The problem of poor children in single-parent families is a problem of poverty much more than it is one of family structure. A generation of research shows that the primary source of trouble in these families is low income. Too often these families lack the material resources necessary to provide a secure and stable environment for their children. Additional challenges, such as low parental involvement or supervision, largely result from time poverty—another consequence of low income for the parents in poor families.
Still, there is no denying that single-parent families have high poverty rates. Wouldn’t policies aimed at altering the long-term trend in family structure be a sure-fire way to reduce poverty?
Under this assumption, the federal government – working with some zealous states – has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over nearly a decade attempting to promote marriage among the poor. So sure were the proponents of this policy that it would solve the problem that they paid for it with money from the federal welfare program. The result was no measureable increase in marriage rates – or in, more importantly, well-being – among the targeted groups. Further, the 1996 welfare reform, which shortened welfare eligibility periods and increased other program requirements, was specifically intended to discourage single parenthood and encourage marriage. Although it increased employment among single mothers with limited education, it did nothing to change the direction of the family structure trend.
This experience in failed policies and decades of cultural exhortation and shaming intended to prevent single parenting, combined with evidence that poverty itself is harmful to the future well-being of children, should be enough to show that reducing poverty, rather than changing family structure, is the more rational approach to improving children’s lives.
The persistent poverty gap between single-parent and married-parent families illustrates just how pervasive the problem of poverty is. Of all the challenges single-parent families face, poverty need not be one of them. A recent paper in the journal Demography, by David Brady and Rebekah Burroway, analyzed the relative poverty of single mothers versus the total population, after accounting for taxes and government transfers, in 18 countries. Not only does the U.S. have the highest poverty rate for single mothers among these countries – 41 percent – but we also have a very large difference in poverty rates between single-mother families and the population overall (see figure below). In countries such as Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and even Italy, single mothers are hardly more likely to be poor than everyone else. In the U.S. the gap is 24 percentage points, a huge penalty for single motherhood.
Based on their analysis, Brady and Burroway argue that universal anti-poverty programs, rather than those targeted directly at single mothers, appear to hold the most promise. In the context of the American political climate, that provides an important insight. As economic inequality has risen on our political and policy radar, the social stigma for single mothers remains strong. Policy directed toward supporting (seen by opponents as “rewarding”) single-mother families seems unlikely to gain favor among today’s political leaders. On the other hand, universalist policies such as living-wage laws, publicly supported universal preschool education, and universal health care, may fare better.
Regardless, an approach that favors reducing poverty broadly – with the side-effect of trimming the single-mother penalty – likely would be far more effective in improving child well-being than efforts to counsel or coerce low-income people into marriage.
I have written up my comment from Penn State Symposium on Family Issues. It was prepared in response to a presentation by Sarah McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen titled, “Diverging Destinies Revisited.” Their paper is a followup to McLanahan’s 2003 Population Association of American presidential address. (I wrote a comment on the symposium itself here.) When they finish the volume it will go behind an expensive paywall, so I put the draft paper here in PDF.
Here is the abstract:
Single parenthood, resulting from nonmarital births and divorce, is increasingly becoming associated with lower levels of education for women. Cross-sectional comparisons show that children of married parents are less likely to suffer material deprivation. To reduce hardships for children, therefore, some analysts advocate policies that would increase marriage. I argue that alternative approaches offer more chance of success: increasing education levels and reducing the penalty for single parenthood. There is ample evidence to support both approaches. Education levels are increasing, and are associated with lower levels of child hardship net of family structure. And comparative research shows the negative economic consequences of single parenthood are ameliorable through state policy. In contrast, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent promoting marriage, and the reform of national welfare policy intended to compel poor mothers to marry, have produced no discernible effects on marriage rates or child wellbeing.
Or, even shorter than the abstract, this figure, which shows the logical alternatives for addressing the issue of family structure and poverty for children.
I had a very nice time at the 21st Annual Symposium on Family Issues at Penn State University, where I presented remarks in response to a paper by Sara McLanahan and Wade Jacobsen. The theme of the symposium was “Diverging Destinies,” or the growing differences in family experiences by social class in the US. The event has lots of time for discussion and debate, and much of that focused on poor people and their families, around contested terms such as choices, parenting, behavior, attitudes, orientation, and so on. I had plenty to agree and disagree with, there were lots of good talks, and it was a good conversation.
Here are two observations.
The first was a moment when Ron Haskins from the Brookings Institution, a long-time member of the welfare policy establishment (his bio describes him as “instrumental in the 1996 overhaul of national welfare policy”), responded to Harvard professor Kathryn Edin’s response to his presentation. She had spent most of her time talking about her new book, Doing the Best I Can: Fathering in the Inner City. For the book, Edin undertook years of ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, and emerged with a very sympathetic yet sobering description of the poor young men she studied, men who want more than anything to be good fathers — according to the contemporary ideals of both economic provision and emotional togetherness — but for many reasons usually can’t meet their own goals.
When they were both on the dais, Haskins said she was “too optimistic” about her subjects, in describing them as eager to do the right thing for their children. “I know these guys!” he said, before describing some anecdotal experiences from his (apparently distant) personal past. It struck me because it seemed profoundly disrespectful of not only her work, but of her kind of research. Of course ethnographers can do bad studies or misinterpret their data. But I would only discount a serious work of ethnography based on my personal experience if that experience were pretty deep. I suspect Haskins wouldn’t have struck that note if her work had been a quantitative demography, but I could be wrong. (Earlier, I had pointed out that welfare reform failed at its stated goal of making poor single mothers get married, and he countered that it had been successful at getting them to work, so “behavior modification does work” — and we should use that program as a model for future work-mandating reforms.)
Anyway, the second observation was about the composition of the speakers. None of our 16 speakers this year was Black. When I grumbled about that on Facebook, someone said he felt the same way last year. That got me to check the previous programs. (Each year the organizers of the symposium produce a book from the papers — you can see previous editions here, where the contributors are all listed.) I had to go back to 2008 to find an African American speaker, according to my reading of their photos and bios (which is not the best way to identify race/ethnicity, obviously, so I maybe wrong). Overall, of the last 114 speakers going back to 2007, I think only one was Black.
I don’t know who decides on the topics or the invitations, or how the event has unfolded over time, so I can’t comment on the process or motivations of those involved. But I think this is not good. The symposium is a substantial endeavor, with grant money from various sources. An invitation to speak there is a line on your CV, it comes with a small honorarium and travel expenses, and it’s a chance to network with other family researchers, grant-makers, and policy people. There also are a lot of students attending the talks. So whatever the reasons, it’s a shame more Black scholars haven’t been there.