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 (60): Early and/or Single Motherhood?

The “culture of poverty” narrative claims that people are poor because they have the wrong values and habits and therefore make the wrong choices: they tend to be unable to resist drugs, violence and crime, they drop out of school, have a problem with punctuality and discipline etc. I’ve already made my own views about this narrative abundantly clear in previous posts. However, I failed to give sufficient attention to one subset of values, namely those related to marriage, family structure and early childbearing. So I’ll briefly have a look at those now.

As is often the case with explanations of poverty based on values and habits, there’s a certain superficial persuasiveness about the claim that early marriage, early childbearing and, most importantly, early out-of-wedlock childbearing result in a lifelong loss of income. Young mothers in general and young single mothers in particular have a relatively hard time finishing their education and finding a well-paying job because the combination of motherhood and work/education is a tough deal.

However, we may be wrong about the direction of causation here. Rather than poverty being the result of bad choices – in this case the choice of becoming a young and/or single mother – it may be the cause of those choices. There’s for example this study which finds that teenage pregnancy rates are indeed higher in U.S. States that have high rates of poverty, but which also postulates that high levels of income inequality cause high teenage pregnancy rates, not vice versa. When young people believe that their society is rigged against people like them, they abandon traditional norms; conversely, people will work hard when they feel that there’s a chance of success. When young women see that their chances of future economic success are slim, then early motherhood may even look appealing: it may give direction and a purpose to their lives, a purpose that would be difficult to find in an economy stacked against them.

“[B]eing on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and … poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory” (source)

In a sense, this is a discouraging finding because it means that the promotion of abstinence or contraceptive use won’t reduce early and/or single motherhood; only poverty reduction and realistic economic opportunities will do that, and that’s a lot more difficult and expensive. And, make no mistake about it, we would want to reduce early and/or single motherhood, because the causation goes in both directions and it’s very implausible to deny that early and/or single motherhood has any effect on income. What you do want to deny is that the “culture of poverty” narrative has an important explanatory value in all of this.

One final remark: while I focus here on mothers, many of the same remarks would be valid for young and/or single fathers as well.

More on poverty and family structure here. More posts in this series here.

Economic Human Rights (40): How Do Poor People Live?

The poor tend to become a number, a statistic, an undifferentiated mass, especially here on this blog. Talk of the “bottom billion” and the one-dollar-a-day people only makes things worse. Of course, it’s important to know the numbers, if only to see how well we are doing in the struggle against poverty. But to actually know what we have to do, we need to know what poverty actually means to poor people. How do these people live? Which problems do they face? Who are they? None of this can be captured in numbers or statistics. Pure quantitative analysis doesn’t help. We need qualitative stories here, and these stories will necessarily differentiate between groups of people because poverty means different things to different people.

Keeping in mind the caveat that poverty is “multidimensional” and that it varies with the circumstances, is it possible to give a more or less general impression of the “lives of the poor”? There’s an interesting attempt here. Banerjee and Duflo analyzed survey data from 13 countries in order to distill a picture of the way people live on less than one dollar a day, of the choices they have and the limits and challenges they face.

The countries are Cote d’Ivoire, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Peru, South Africa, Tanzania, and Timor Leste. Obviously, the lives of the poor are very different in these different countries, and vary even for different groups within each country. Still, some general information can be extracted:

  • The number of adults (i.e. those over 18) living in a family ranges from about 2.5 to about 5, with a median of about 3, which suggests a family structure where it is common for adults to live with people they are not conjugally related to (parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, etc.). When every penny counts, it helps to spread the fixed costs of living (like housing) over a larger number of people. Poverty has consequences for family structure, and vice versa.
  • Poor families have more children living with them. The fact that there are a large number of children in these families does not necessarily imply high levels of fertility, as families often have multiple adult women.
  • The poor of the world are very young on average. Older people tend to be richer simply because they have had more time to accumulate resources.
  • Food typically represents from 56 to 78 percent of consumption expenses among rural households, and 56 to 74 percent in urban areas.
  • The poor consume on average slightly less than 1400 calories a day. This is about half of what the Indian government recommends for a man with moderate activity, or a woman with heavy physical activity. As a result, health is definitely a reason for concern. Among the poor adults in Udaipur, the average “body mass index” (that is, weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters) is 17.8. Sixty-five percent of poor adult men and 40 percent of adult women have a body mass index below 18.5, the standard cutoff for being underweight. Eating more would improve their BMI and their health, and yet they choose to spend relatively large amounts on entertainment. Which just shows that the poor have the same desires as anyone else and choose their priorities accordingly.
  • The poor see themselves as having a significant amount of choice, and choose not to exercise it in the direction of spending more on food. The typical poor household in Udaipur could spend up to 30 percent more on food than it actually does, just based on what it spends on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals. Indeed, in most of the surveys the share spent on food is about the same for the poor and the extremely poor, suggesting that the extremely poor do not feel the need to purchase more calories. This conclusion echoes an old finding in the literature on nutrition: Even the extremely poor do not seem to be as hungry for additional calories as one might expect.
  • Tap water and electricity are extremely rare among the poor.
  • Many poor households have multiple occupations. They may operate their own one-man business, sometimes more than one, but do so with almost no productive assets. They also have jobs as laborers, often in agriculture. And they cultivate a piece of land they own. Yet, agriculture is not the mainstay of most of these households. Where do they find non-agricultural work? They migrate. The businesses they operate are very small, lacking economies of scale and without employment opportunities for people outside the family. That’s a vicious circle because it means that few people can find a job and are forced to start petty businesses themselves. This circle makes economies of scale very difficult.
  • The poor tend not to become too specialized, which has its costs. As short-term migrants, they have little chance of learning their jobs better, ending up in a job that suits their specific talents or being promoted. Even the non-agricultural businesses that the poor operate typically require relatively little specific skills. The reason for this lack of specialization is probably risk spreading. If the weather is bad and crop yields are low, people can move to another occupation.
  • The poor don’t save a lot, unsurprisingly. Some of it has to do with inadequate access to credit and insurance markets. Banks and insurers are unwilling to give access to the poor and saving at home is hard to do; it’s unsafe and the presence of money at home increases the temptation to spend (that’s true for all of us by the way).
  • In 12 of the 13 countries in the sample, with the exception of Cote d’Ivoire, at least 50 percent of both boys and girls aged 7 to 12 in extremely poor households are in school. Schooling doesn’t take a large bite from the family budget of the poor because children in poor households typically attend public schools or other schools that do not charge a fee.

The Causes of Poverty (45): Bad Luck

Some of the poor are victims of bad luck. That’s not something which is sufficiently understood. Agreed, others dig their own grave or get their graves dug by crooked capitalists, unfair international rules, overly optimistic financial institutions causing a global economic crisis, heartless politicians etc. However, there are cases in which the link between someone’s actions or intentions – self-regarding or other-regarding – and someone’s poverty is very weak indeed and in which it’s better to say that it’s a good dose of bad luck that drives people over the brink. And I’m not just thinking about the guy losing his job because of illness or accident.

The data are very clear. In essence, if you have the bad luck of being

then you’ll earn less, sometimes a lot less than average, and you’ll run a higher risk of becoming poor.

Maybe you would reply that people with some of these characteristics don’t earn less because they had the bad luck of being born like that – e.g. black, female, short etc. – but because employers are racist or prejudiced against women or short people. True, but not always. Poverty rates among blacks in the U.S. are a lot higher than average, but only part of this gap can be explained by racist employers. Other parts of the explanation, such as education levels, statistical discrimination etc., can’t be linked immediately or exclusively to racial bias.

Or maybe you would reply that some people have themselves to blame for some of their harmful characteristics, e.g. being obese or a single mother. That, in other words, these characteristics are chosen and self-inflicted and not a matter of bad luck. That is also only partly true. Obesity can be genetically determined, and single parenthood can be the result of misguided policies such as the war on drugs.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (43): The Welfare State

Yes, that’s right: the welfare state… According to many conservatives, the welfare state is self-defeating and actually makes people poorer. Welfare and social security (and perhaps even private charity) unwittingly work to thwart their own goal – helping the poor – in two different ways. There’s supposed to be a supply side and a demand side to the so-called “perverse effects” of anti-poverty policies.

Take the supply side first. The delivery of welfare by the government and – indirectly – by the taxpayers is economically inefficient. It burdens the primary suppliers of the necessary funds, namely the individual and corporate taxpayers. Because of this burden, companies and individuals lose the incentive to be productive. If they have to pay large amounts in taxes in order to fund the welfare state, they can’t or won’t create the wealth that is the basis for redistribution. In other words, they can’t or won’t create a rising tide that will lift all boats. Ultimately, a tax-based welfare state will eat itself because it burdens the wealth creators whose wealth it wants to redistribute.

I’ve argued against this rejection of the welfare state before, and I won’t repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that the risks to incentives are overstated, as well as the benefits of trickle down economics. (For instance, companies may decide to be more productive in order to compensate for the losses from taxation).

Let’s now turn to the demand side of the anti-welfare argument. Again, the reasoning is based on incentives that ultimately result in a self-defeating anti-poverty system, but this time it’s about the incentives of the recipients of welfare. The argument goes roughly like this. Take unemployment benefits for instance (one part of the welfare state). These benefits supposedly discourage people from working. And when people don’t work, they fail to gain experience and to nurture certain values – such as discipline – necessary in order to escape poverty. Hence, unemployment insurance makes the recipients worse off.

Or take another kind of benefit: financial support for children born out-of-wedlock. This kind of support also triggers the wrong incentives. It encourages teenagers to get pregnant and it discourages adults to marry. Teen-pregnancies and single parenthood both make it more difficult to escape poverty. Something similar happens with scholarships or affirmative action for poor students. These so-called anti-poverty policies actually incentivize students to enroll in education programs that are above their capabilities, forcing them to drop out of school at some point, and hence forcing them into poverty. And, finally, there’s the argument about welfare dependence: when people get money from the government they tend to settle in their role as receivers and fail to take their lives into their own hands. Again the wrong incentives.

This demand side of the anti-welfare argument suffers from two fatal shortcomings. First, the data don’t (always) support it. For example, it’s not true that generous unemployment insurance leads to higher unemployment. And secondly, it’s classist in the sense that it offers an essentialist depreciation of the poor as a class. The poor, according to the argument, suffer from a series of typical deficiencies:

  • shortsightedness (in the case of the person being tempted by child benefits and ignoring the long-term costs of teen pregnancy or single parenthood)
  • a lack of self-judgment (in the case of the student accepting a scholarship and enrolling in a program beyond her capabilities) and
  • a lack of self-control (in the case of the person settling in dependency).

This classism is not only generally incorrect and unfair, but it also obscures the many other causes of poverty. The poor aren’t always to blame for their own poverty, and the welfare state doesn’t force them to make themselves poor. Moreover, and even worse, this classism can be self-fulfilling.

Also, hasn’t the recent financial crisis shown that wealthy people, especially bankers, are equally short-sighted, self-deluded and lacking in self-control? And even if it’s true that those vices are more prominent among the poor (as is claimed here for example), wouldn’t that be a good argument for welfare rather than against it? If the poor can’t rationally take care of their own fate because they are self-deluded and unable to plan for the long term, shouldn’t the rest of us try to help them?

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (11): Family Structure

In the U.S., and probably in other countries as well, there’s been an increase in the number of single parent families. Most of the time, that means a single mother, divorced or unmarried, or with a husband in prison, and raising one or several children on her own. As a result:

The percentage of children living with one parent has doubled since 1970, from 12 percent to more than 26 percent in 2004. (source)

There are about 13.7 million single parents in the United States today, and those parents are responsible for raising 21.8 million children. 84% of those single parents are mothers.

Single mothers often earn relatively lows wages, partly because they can’t afford to work long hours. Combine that with the fact that they have higher per person expenses (heating a house costs just as much for a two parent family as for a single parent family) and the fact that women in general have lower wages, and you have a recipe for inequality.

However, the growth in the number of single parent families in the U.S. flattened when income inequality continued to increase. So, family structure may be a good although partial explanation of poverty levels, but not necessarily of inequality. There must be other causes, some of which are discussed here.

The Causes of Poverty (39): The Bee Sting Theory of Poverty

Why are people poor? A cursory investigation almost always blames the poor for their own poverty. Poor people seems to make stupid choices all of the time. They are disproportionately likely to have children while in their teens, to be an unmarried mother, to drop out of school, to abuse drugs, to commit crimes etc. Non-poor people also engage in this kind of irrational behavior but the costs to them are much smaller. So rationality would tell poor people to stay away from such behavior. The fact that they don’t leads many to conclude that poor people are especially irrational, perhaps even dumb.

Many conservatives often adopt this causal theory of poverty, although not always in those terms. Perhaps it’s a reaction to liberals who tend to situate the cause of poverty far away from the poor themselves, e.g. racism, capitalism etc. Both camps, however, remove responsibility from the discussion. If you’re too dumb to escape poverty, you’re not likely to magically develop the responsibility to take your life in your hands. And if outside forces as powerful as racism and capitalism make you poor, no matter how strong your sense of responsibility, you’re not likely to win.

A multicausal understanding of poverty seems closer to reality: dumb choices, lack of effort and responsibility and outside forces all contribute to create and maintain poverty, in different measures for different people. It’s likely that poor people aren’t different from anyone else in this respect: everyone makes dumb choices, lacks responsibility in key moments and suffer the brunt of outside forces, the poor just pay a heavier price. They have smaller margins of error, so they suffer disproportionately from the errors they make. And their reserves and defenses are weaker, so the impact of outside forces is stronger. And we shouldn’t forget poverty traps as a cause of poverty: the more you’re down, the more difficult it is to get up again. Partly because of material reasons (for example, the trap of the ghetto or the vicious circle of poverty and ill health), but also because of psychological reasons:

A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems. …

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. …

[B]eing poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all. (source)

This is a classic example of a poverty trap: being poor makes you poorer. People just get overwhelmed by problems and their ability to cope suffers. It’s not just that they are dumb or irresponsible; they’re simply overwhelmed. All of us would be, even the smartest and most responsible among us.

It also means that, as Charles Karelis has argued, there’s something wrong with the disincentive argument about help to the poor (giving them help reduces their incentives to do something about their situation, like giving unemployment benefits reduces the incentive to find a job). Things may actually be the other way around:

Reducing the number of economic hardships that the poor have to deal with actually make them more, not less, likely to work, just as repairing most of the dents on a car makes the owner more likely to fix the last couple on his own. (source)

The Causes of Poverty (29): Overview

Our research shows that if you want to avoid poverty and join the middle class in the United States, you need to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time and marry before you have children. If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class or above rise from 56 to 74 percent. (We define middle class as having an income of at least $50,000 a year for a family of three). Isabel V. Sawhill and Ron Haskins (source, source)

However, that seems to be a bit reductionist. There are many other possible causes of poverty. Some more convincing than others. For example, here’s Montesquieu according to whom people in hot places are simply too lazy to become rich:

In Europe there is a kind of balance between the southern and northern nations. The first have every convenience of life, and few of its wants: the last have many wants, and few conveniences. To one nature has given much, and demands but little; to the other she has given but little, and demands a great deal. The equilibrium is maintained by the laziness of the southern nations, and by the industry and activity which she has given to those in the north. (source)

According to Thomas Malthus, poverty is caused by overpopulation. Food and other resources are limited, and a population growth that exceeds a certain pace will inevitably hit a resource ceiling, and will result in decreasing standards of living, poverty, conflict over scarce resources, famine etc.

Max Weber believed that protestant work ethic put protestant nations at an advantage compared to other nations. Certain values, such as the opinion that God will reward those who work hard and save money, or the belief in predestination—getting rich is a sign of God’s approval—make some nations rich and others, that lack these values, poor.

Jeffrey Sachs focuses on geography and weather. In the poorest parts of the world, the soil is nutrient-starved, making it difficult to produce food. Moreover, tropical climates foment disease, particularly malaria. The UK, on the other hand, the country where the Industrial Revolution started, has a fertile soil, a lot of coal, and good waterways.

Daron Acemoglu states that nations are not like children — they are not born rich or poor. Their governments make them that way.

People need incentives to invest and prosper; they need to know that if they work hard, they can make money and actually keep that money. And the key to ensuring those incentives is sound institutions — the rule of law and security and a governing system that offers opportunities to achieve and innovate. … if you wish to fix institutions, you have to fix governments. [People should be able to] enjoy law and order and dependable government services — they can go about their daily activities and jobs without fear for their life or safety or property rights. (source)

There are obviously many more explanations of poverty, both “exotic” and sensible ones. And regarding the latter, it’s extremely difficult to say which ones are more important. Poverty is surely one of the most complex and intractable problems facing humanity. However, if we look at the country that has been most successful in the reduction of poverty – China – then the last quote above seems to be the most convincing one. China still has institutional and legal weaknesses today, but it did start to develop only after it abandoned the follies of the Cultural revolution and communist rule in general, and started to protect property rights and build its government institutions. Which doesn’t mean that institutions are a “silver bullet” solution to the problem of poverty. There’s no such thing, unfortunately.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (3): Marital Homogamy and Declining Manufacturing & Unionization

Part of the increase [in inequality during the last decades, particularly in the U.S. and the U.K.] stems from declining manufacturing employment, part from shrinking unionization and fragmenting collective bargaining, part from heightened immigration and other aspects of globalization, and part from technological change. … [A]nother source of the rise in inequality: changes in household size and composition. Due to later marriage and more prevalent divorce, more and more households have just one adult, and hence only one potential earner. At the same time, coupling between people with similar education and thus similar earnings potential (“marital homogamy”) has increased, and the share of highly educated women who are employed continues to rise. The result of these developments is that many countries have more two-adult households with high earnings and more one- or two-adult households with low earnings than used to be the case. Lane Kenworthy (source)

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.