The Causes of Poverty (74): Family Structure, Ctd.

The more traditionally minded among us often blame family structure for high poverty rates. Family structure is of course a euphemism hiding several very specific moral judgments about people’s behavior, about single motherhood, divorce, paternal negligence and incarceration. Those are the things that supposedly make people poor. “Family structure” just sounds nicer and more neutral.

At first sight, this does make some sense. It is a lot harder, financially and otherwise, to raise kids on your own, and if you find yourself in this situation it’s often your own fault or the other parent’s fault. Having a kid or not is a choice given the availability of contraception and abortion. Divorce is a choice. Finding yourself in prison as a parent is a choice. And even if you’re not a parent, marriage or cohabitation is just plainly cheaper than living on your own because you can share costs. You’ll have to buy just as much food as a single person, but the cost of rent, heating, internet access, the use of a car etc. can be split. A lot of consumption goods are non-rival, and marriage and cohabitation are wonderful places for non-rival goods (the park as well, but you can be lonely there).

Given the high rate of children living with single parents it’s not a priori crazy to assume that there’s a link with poverty rates. It does seem to be the case that poverty rates among single parents are higher than average.

However, we have to be careful when assuming causation. While it can be the case that your income is lower than it would have been had you (remained) married or chosen not to be a single parent, it might just as well be true that your preexisting poverty causes you to be single.

Suppose you are a single person making $9,000 a year and therefore live in poverty. Now suppose you meet someone else making $9,000 and you are considering marrying them. If you marry, the family income goes to $18,000 and is therefore above the poverty line. On a very superficial take, this seems like it would be a real improvement. But that is only if you assume your potential spouse will necessarily remain employed. If they lose their job, you will go from supporting one person with $9,000/yr to supporting two people with $9,000/yr. On the low-end of the labor market, precarity is very common and so this is a very real risk. (source)

There’s also some literature about how teenage pregnancy results from poverty: poor teenagers often see parenthood as one of the few meaningful options that are available (work, education etc. may not be realistic options).

Another point: traditionalists who make the argument that we should promote marriage in order to reduce poverty can perhaps be somewhat dishonest about their motivations. It may be that what they really want is more marriage for its own sake and just dress it up as an anti-poverty measure because arguing outright for more marriage for its own sake is just not that convincing anymore. It’s telling that cohabitation doesn’t figure as an equivalent alternative in their arguments, even though in theory marriage and cohabitation have the same effect on poverty.

And there may be another hidden motivation. Traditionalist proponents of marriage are often situated at the right of the political spectrum, and being right-wing often also implies being opposed to the welfare state. Arguing that poverty should be solved by way of increased marriage rates is perhaps just a roundabout way of downsizing the welfare state: why should we have a welfare state if marriage can solve poverty? Some make this argument explicitly, saying that welfare destroys marriage because it allows people to survive without getting married (I can’t find a citation just now).

What I dislike about the focus on family structure is not really these possible motivations, but rather the inherent simplifications and victim blaming. There are a lot of causes of poverty, and behavior is probably not the most important one. Many single parents are doing a fine job, both financially and otherwise. Low marriage rates are common in many countries, including those where poverty rates are low. And those single parents who struggle probably do so for other reasons than family structure. It’s also true that many working married parents are poor, whereas most celebrity divorcees don’t have a trouble in the world.

A final remark: even if higher marriage rates would be an effective anti-poverty measure, how on earth do we get more people to marry? Tax cuts? A government sponsored dating service? Flower shop vouchers? It all seems so impractical, especially given the ease of other anti-poverty measures (for example…). And not just impractical but also paternalistic and lacking in respect for people’s choices.

The Causes of Poverty (28): Family Structure

Almost 30 percent of children [in the U.S.] now live in single-parent families, up from 12 percent in 1968. Since poverty rates in single-parent households are roughly five times as high as in two-parent households, this shift has helped keep the poverty rate up; it climbed to 13.2 percent last year. If we had the same fraction of single-parent families today as we had in 1970, the child poverty rate would probably be about 30 percent lower than it is today. Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins (source, source)

These numbers seem to correspond to intuition. It’s harder for one person to raise children than it is for two. And the risks of ending up in poverty are therefore higher. However, some caution is needed when linking poverty to family structure. Also, perhaps family structure isn’t so much the cause of poverty as its effect. And then there’s the fact that some countries, such as the Nordic European ones, have low marriage rates and high out-of-wedlock birthrates, yet they are much more egalitarian and have lower poverty rates than the U.S. (source). Part of the reason for this is the more generous welfare systems (and higher taxes ) in Nordic countries. Another part is the fact that

in the Nordic countries it’s quite common for committed couples raising children to just not be married. In the US a child whose mother isn’t married is typically growing up without his or her father being present, which isn’t the case in Sweden or Norway. (source)

“Born out of wedlock” doesn’t necessarily imply “single parent”. It’s family structure, and the presence of two parents – not necessarily “biological parents” or parents of a different sex – that helps families and children avoid or escape poverty, not formal or legal marriage status.

Unmarried biological parents in northern Europe are more likely to stay together to raise the kid than married parents in the US. (source)

This quote isn’t intended to imply that unmarried couples are better than married ones. Again, what matters isn’t marriage as such but family structure. And the focus on family structure isn’t intended to imply that all single parents are bad. Even if there’s only one parent, descent into poverty isn’t destiny. It also depends on the parent. Poverty isn’t a mechanical result of a certain family structure, but family structure does count in many cases (a poor single mother, even with the best intentions and efforts, will perhaps do worse than a celebrity divorcee). Having two parents is extremely helpful.

Yet we shouldn’t forget that poverty has many causes and family structure is just one of them, and most likely not the most important one. Hence it’s very well possible that a society with extremely high rates of single parents and births out of wedlock experiences less poverty (including child poverty) than another society where the large majority of children are raised by two biological parents and the large majority of marriages doesn’t break down.

Here‘s a graph indicating that living with only one parent certainly doesn’t condemn children to poverty.